5 things to consider when designing digital agriculture projects

Designing digital agriculture projects: a Senegalese woman holds a cell phone while another woman looks over her shoulder, a Senegalese man, a radio station employee, shows her how to use the phone. A radio set sits beside them.

At Farm Radio International, we field the question “why radio” more often than we care to admit. And, in a world where apps, blockchain, and AI are exciting new ways of improving agriculture, we get it. 

Our work often looks a little like this: organizations come to us with a problem — like increasing use of a new maize innovation, or raising awareness about gender stereotypes. We talk to farmers about what information they need to solve that problem. Then we work with the radio stations farmers have told us they trust in order to develop an interactive radio program designed to help farmers uptake different solutions to that problem. 

That’s the simple version. Behind those steps are years of research into what makes a good interactive radio program; expertise in communication for development techniques; training for broadcasters into how to make programs inclusive, participatory, and engaging; and digital technology that turns these radio programs into a two-way conversation allowing farmers to ask questions, participate and engage in the topics at hand. 

Still, the question persists, why radio

Too often, the digital transformation of agriculture leaves small-scale farmers behind. Certainly not intentionally, but it happens nonetheless. We use radio because we believe it remains the most inclusive, accessible way of reaching small-scale farmers across Africa. When literacy is a challenge, where Indigenous languages are broadly spoken, and when farmers — especially women — still don’t have the same access to the internet, or even smart phones, radio remains an essential tool for improving the lives of small-scale farmers. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

So, what can you do to ensure your digital transformation of agriculture projects are inclusive and participatory?

1. Meet your audience where they are

It might seem obvious, but using digital applications and programs that people already are using will often see higher success and uptake than designing an entirely new system and trying to convince someone to download it. 

In a webinar we hosted on communication during the next phase of COVID-19, Andy Pattison of the World Health Organization made this same point: 

On the average smartphone we have 30 apps. What I am trying to do is get into the four apps that you use every day, whatever they are. We’re not trying to drag people onto WHO’s channel, what we are trying to do is get our content into people’s existing channels.”

We mustn’t be so in love with whatever new product we have created, to forget that people need to see and use it. The energy we spend trying to convince people to try to download a new app, is often better spent trying to give space to listen to genuine concerns of rural audiences, address these concerns, and ultimately give a chance for farmers to make their own educated decisions around improved agriculture practices.

“We’re not trying to drag people onto WHO’s channel, what we are trying to do is get our content into people’s existing channels.”

Andy Pattison, WHO

We use radio because, right now, that’s what the farmers use in the regions we work in. Estimates put radio access in Africa between 80 per cent and 90 per cent. Even when farmers don’t own a set, they might have access in their community, or tune-in listening groups. Radio is also often used on the farm, able to be listened to even as the hard work of farming happens.

In one of our projects with the International Finance Corporation on poultry in Ethiopia, for example, our formative research showed that more than four in five poultry farmers had access to a radio set, and were able to tune into their respective regional radio station. However, that project was targeting both poultry farmers and poultry agents. For poultry agents, only 57 per cent had access to a radio, but two in three agents owned smartphones. 

We developed a project that used radio to reach these farmers, and then turned those programs into podcasts, as well as developing short “Agri Tips” to send as audio files to poultry agents using Telegram and WhatsApp. 

2. Design multi-modal multimedia agriculture projects

Our studies show that multiple interventions, using multiple interventions, work better when designing agricultural projects. While we use interactive radio, we know that there is rarely something better to explain a new practice than by showing it, in person, to a farmer and then training them on how to do the same — though radio is likely to reach more people with less cost. Video demonstrations provide a middle ground, but might require internet access. Comic books provide fun ways to access information, but not everyone is literate. When all these channels work together to send the same information, in different ways, uptake is proven to be higher — more people are reached, in more ways, with the same information.

Seeing something once may not mean you will try it. Having that message reinforced in different ways means you might start to consider it.

In Tanzania, our weather service project with the Tanzanian Meteorological Service and the World Food Programme approaches weather and agriculture information in different ways. SMS messages send weather information; interactive Voice Response systems allow farmers to call, access additional information, and leave questions; voice messages send related agriculture tips that apply to the weather; and radio programs address climate generally, alongside agriculture solutions that apply to local areas. We’ve seen enormous engagement with our call in and text services. 

As part of a consortium to improve legume technologies in Tanzania supported by IDRC, we worked with five organizations to test how radio programs, comic books, demo plots, and field training days could work together to improve legume growth. In total, 508,000 rural people listened to at least one radio program; over 504,000 comic books were produced; 3,845 farmers attended field training days; and 32 demo plots were sown, 655,662 farmers were empowered with information on how to improve legume technology and almost one in five of those farmers took up at least one improved technology. 

3. Consider the digital divide

It’s no secret that when rapid digitization occurs, people are often left behind. Literacy, ownership, affordability and comfort with technology all play a role in ease of uptake when new technologies are proposed. While youth, and those with more resources and schooling may go farther and faster with new access to tools, it’s important that we consider those who won’t have the same opportunities. 

Globally about 72 per cent of households in urban areas have access to the Internet at home, almost twice as much as in rural areas, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). These connectivity gaps are pronounced in the least developed countries in the world, where 17 per cent of rural populations live in areas with no mobile coverage of all. This is rapidly changing, but It’s important to consider access to the technologies we propose as we seek to digitize further.

And these divides can be seen across genders as well. In Africa, only 20 per cent of women are using the internet, compared with 37 per cent of men.

17 % of rural populations live in areas with no mobile coverage of all.

International Telecommunication Union

We don’t have easy answers to the better inclusion of women. What we do is try to build access into our projects. We organize women-only community listening groups, where women are able to discuss together what they hear on the radio. We sometimes give these groups training on how to use smartphones and phone credit, so they can call into the radio stations and provide feedback to programs. When other women hear their voices on air, that encourages them to do the same. Our IVR phone lines are voiced by women, to ensure comfort when people call in. We occasionally run separate phone lines for women — especially when men, eager to call, crowd the regular call-in line, to ensure an equality of voices heard on the air. 

4. Ensure feedback mechanisms (particularly immediate ones) are built into your project

Increasingly digital agriculture projects create incredible opportunities for feedback. In fact, that’s a prime benefit of the digitization of agriculture. One of the failings of large-scale agriculture development projects is often that we check in on our progress only two or three times — perhaps at the midterm evaluation or at the end of a project. This doesn’t allow nearly enough time for course corrections. 

“Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education,” writes Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is the root of participatory communication. If we want to improve agriculture, we need to truly listen, and enable farmers to take ownership of the solutions we present. 

““Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.”

Paolo Freire

In our work, for example, this means that radio programs, in and of themselves, are not nearly enough. We use our Uliza platform, a suite of digital tools that allow radio stations to interact with listeners using IVR systems, polling, and mobile phones. This allows farmers to call in with questions — that can literally be answered on the next episode. If we conduct polls, we can see if farmers are learning the things that have been addressed during the program, and know whether we need to take a different approach. 

In Ethiopia, we were running a program with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on millet. When few calls came in to the call-in lines, and what few there were talked about the possibility of an upcoming new drought, with the help of the radio station, we changed the entire project and radio programs to address what was actually necessary: information on how to prepare for a drought — all within a matter of weeks.

5. Work with local actors

At Farm Radio, we might be experts in interactivity and program design, but we are not experts in the diverse communities we work in. What works in a community in Tanzania, may not do the trick for a community in Mali. While the agriculture intervention might be the same from country to country, we can’t produce the same content and expect a farmer in those two places to be equally likely to give it a try. Not only does language differ, but culture, religion, local knowledge, mobile or internet usage, and even popular styles of entertainment can change.

Additionally, what reasons might a farmer have to trust an intervention designed for a completely different country, that wasn’t produced in their own language? 

That is why we have broadcasters lead in choosing content, meeting farmers and running their programs. They are experts when it comes to their communities and listeners, and their job is, ultimately, to find ways to appeal to them. They already have relationships, and by extension trust, with the communities they serve. They ensure projects remain culturally and locally appropriate, and sometimes even push the conversation farther than we ever imagined. Working with, and training local actors to lead digital programs also means that expertise stays in communities, ensuring benefits can be sustained for years to come. 

The takeaways

The digital transformation of agriculture provides uncountable opportunities to reach more and more people with better tools to improve their fields, and by extension, their communities. But we must be sure of one thing: that we do not leave the most vulnerable people behind in our excitement. By centering rural people, and underserved farmers, especially women, at the heart of our work, we can ensure that everyone, not only the most well off, can be served equally, and we can move forward together.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of GFAR’s diverse network of partners, including Farm Radio International, who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food.

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