The Value of Technology in Farmer Knowledge Sharing
By: Katie Collier
Date: May 18, 2021
Small-scale agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is often stifled by poor access to important information. Farming practices are becoming increasingly more challenging due to climate change and its variable weather patterns. As follows, it is more essential than ever for African farmers to have relevant information to help them adapt to consequences of atmospheric uncertainty.
Agricultural extension services are a significant source by which African farmers receive information. Extension agents provide information, advice, and development projects to farmers, with the goal of increasing productivity and farmer incomes. These services are primarily provided by the public sector in African countries. In recent years, these systems have become more complex, leading to a wider knowledge gap likely due to the increased costs of attaining knowledge. In place of these services, independent intermediaries (e.g. NGOs, research institutions) have attempted to fill this gap. However, responsibility across institutions to disseminate information is inefficient. Under this model, institutions may be taking on unsuitable roles or redundantly repeating the work others have already done. A more cohesive system to disseminate knowledge is needed.
Between farmers, non-digital mechanisms of knowledge sharing usually occurs while working together in the field and/or meetings and discussions at religious places and markets. Indigenous knowledge is often undervalued by researchers and institutions. Farmers tend to be seen as “receivers” of knowledge rather than contributors to knowledge. However, the lived experiences of farmers can prove to be more useful than academic or institutional research. Knowledge institutions do not adequately reach out to small-scale farmers and when they do, the knowledge is usually inappropriate or too generalized. Farmers also often consider other smallholder farm households the most reliable source of agricultural information. Thus, it is important to improve or enhance farmer knowledge sharing networks.
Two changes can be made to advance information sharing for farmers: (1) prioritizing farmer to farmer knowledge sharing and (2) creating information networks that are coordinated and cohesive. Technological innovations may be able to meet those requirements.
Technology has recently entered the agricultural information sharing space, creating easier and faster ways for farmers to share information directly with one another. Farmer-to-farmer digital network WeFarm hinges on farmers asking questions and receiving answers from other farmers via SMS and online chats. This application has engaged more than 1.8 million small-scale farmers in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in knowledge sharing with other African farmers. This application relies primarily on SMS: so internet connection is not necessarily needed. In fact, 95% of its users choose to operate offline. In Africa, only about 18% of households use the internet, so WeFarm’s SMS feature is essential in making this platform digitally accessible to more farmers. Also, in 2017, the mobile phone connections in Africa reached a 75% penetration rate; thus, WeFarm’s level of technology is well-suited for the current status of Africa’s tech adaptation capabilities. Over 37 million farmer conversations have occurred on WeFarm, allowing the company to use real time data to identify and analyze farming trends in Africa.
Verdant is another AgTech company that strives to connect farmers to critical data, major stakeholders, and services. While not a farmer to farmer application, this technology does lend itself to a more cohesive system of aid and agricultural insights for African farmers when compared to agricultural extension services. Its value chain integration projects utilize mobile technology to increase market accessibility of smallholders and data-driven information to capitalize off of sector-specific solutions.
Improving technological and informational access and capabilities in Africa can have vast effects on women empowerment. Women farmers are a crucial part of small-scale farming in Africa, making up 60-80% of total African farmers; however, in comparison to men, they are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone and 25% less likely to have internet access. Equalizing these metrics can increase agricultural production by up to 4%, subsequently decreasing hungry Africans by up to 17%.
The advancement of digital technologies, such as the ones mentioned above, can play a pivotal role in increasing farm productivity and farmers’ incomes. This will ensue positive benefits down the supply chain to agro-processors and retailers. In the next blog post, we will be delving into details of how improvements in mobile technology has improved knowledge sharing and increased farmer productivity.