Blending digital and physical tools to deliver CSA information

Opinion

 

Accessing information on farming practices, crop diseases, pest control and land management can be made easier for rural farmers through digital technology. However, at present, there is a large gap between African extension services – that could deliver these technologies to rural areas – and the number of farmers being reached. In Kenya, for example, over 5 million smallholder farmers rely on just 5,500 agricultural extension workers. This ratio of 1:909 is proof that the majority of smallholder farmers are not getting the advice and information they need. Africa’s existing mobile network (currently the second biggest mobile market in the world) could be better utilised to bridge this gap and provide mobile-based agricultural information, advice and support to smallholder farmers.

Meeting the insurance gap

For enhancing smallholder farmers’ resilience to climate change-related shocks, micro insurance solutions are important tools. Index insurance, for instance, has gained attention as a cost-effective and viable insurance product to reduce weather risks for smallholders. In Kenya, index-based crop insurance was first introduced in 2009 by the Kilimo Salama project, which later evolved into the Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise Ltd (ACRE Africa).

In the process of distributing and encouraging insurance uptake, ACRE Africa has observed a number of information gaps. To address this, ACRE Africa has introduced advisories on agronomic practices, downscaled national agro-weather information to the grassroots level, and delivered crop insurance training to support the uptake and implementation of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices. These services are delivered through a cost-effective approach that uses digital tools such as text messages, interactive voice response messages, and USSD codes linked to interactive message platforms etc. to ensure access to credible and actionable information in real-time, directly to smallholders.

However, the data dissemination method is not sufficient to enable farmers to attain adequate understanding of the digital tools themselves, and therefore limits farmers’ capacity to demand for more information or clarification. In addition, ACRE Africa has observed that, although minimal interaction or ‘low touch’ interventions like digital messaging and self-enrollment programmes are cost-effective and easy to replicate – CSA technologies, and information and management practices require more intensive and direct personal interaction (‘high touch’) interventions at the introduction stage. This helps to overcome farmer mistrust of new technologies and steer a shift in traditional behaviour and mindsets.

Village-based champions

ACRE Africa therefore complements the use of digital tools with a peer-to-peer approach that leverages on local communities’ trusted social structures to establish a network of rural change agents (champions). These agents are well positioned in the communities to provide information on sustainable CSA technologies and risk management awareness campaigns to help farmers make informed decisions. The impacts of the training and ‘smart’ awareness programmes delivered through both the peer-to-peer model and digital tools have resulted in more farmers undertaking good agriculture practices and increasing farm investments, such as increased use of improved seed, fertiliser and uptake of insurance.

ACRE Africa closely monitors the use and uptake of these inputs/services each season with the aim of improving product and service delivery. In addition, by utilising a blended approach to information and knowledge sharing, the village-based champions are trained on digital data collection using free online tools. This data is used by ACRE Africa to continuously improve its insurance products and advisories.

In conclusion, whilst a real opportunity exists to ‘normalise’ CSA information dissemination and agriculture extension using digital tools – particularly mobile phones – this can only be successfully achieved over time with extensive peer support. Investment in developing content best suited for location-specific value chains is also recommended with the information adapted to suit different cultures; this includes incorporating indigenous traditional knowledge to improve uptake. Thus, without appropriate blending with participatory or high touch models, digital tools alone are not sufficient to deliver CSA advisories and extension services.