Maize farmers turn to cell phones and radios for help adapting to drought

Maize farmers turn to cell phones and radios for help adapting to drought

Fatuma Aly Kajogoo adjusts her red headscarf to keep the sweat out of her eyes. She stands smiling among rows of maize shoots that she hopes will provide enough food for her six children. Fatuma grows maize and cassava on a one-acre plot in Songa, a village in Tanzania’s Tanga region, about six hours’ drive north of Dar es Salaam.

Like many farmers in the area, she has changed the way she farms to adapt to drier weather, depleted soil, and new seed varieties. And like many farmers, she turns to her cell phone and her radio when she needs information and guidance about new farming inputs and techniques.

Fatuma explains why she loves radio.

“Women have many tasks, [such as] cooking, [and] finding charcoal and water. The radio program is on at a good time for me.”

She’s talking about Shamba darasa, or “Field class,” a weekly program broadcast on the radio station Voice of Africa. The program has run for two seasons in 2016 and 2017, with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development and Farm Radio. The show focused on many aspects of maize farming, such as using fertilizers, selecting seeds, controlling pests, and harvesting.

Listeners could also sign up to receive related tips and reminders via free text messages. An NGO called CABI, or Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, worked with farmers, seed suppliers, and other agricultural experts to prepare the messages. Farmers received the agriculture tips several times a week on their cell phones. Farm Radio International helped Voice of Africa prepare the radio programs.

Fatuma says she learned from both the radio show and the SMS messages. The text messages reminded her of what she learned about on the radio and were nice to have on hand, but Fatuma explains why she prefers radio: “With SMS, you have to read it and sometimes it’s hard to understand. There isn’t enough explanation. [But] radio is like a conversation—you can understand it better.”

Yusta Tarimo is the local extension officer in Songa. She says the text message tips complemented the radio programs. But she agrees with Fatuma that radio is easier for many farmers to understand. She adds, “Some farmers don’t know how to read the SMS messages. Sometimes they receive the SMS, read it quickly, and then forget about it.”

Reduced rains and depleted soil led to a disastrous maize harvest in much of Tanga region last year. Jumanne Ramadani Jumbe harvested three 100-kilogram sacks of maize from his two-and-a-half-acre farm in Songa. After 20 years of farming maize, cassava, and rice, he says he needed to learn some new techniques to help adapt to the changing climate.

Jumanne explains: “I was a farmer for a long time. Previously I was a teacher. But I still learned a lot—I learned to use the [new varieties of] certified seeds, how to control pests and diseases, and the proper timing for planting.”

Jumanne learned these things from farmers and experts who shared their experiences on the radio show, and from the tips he received on his cell phone.

For example, he learned how to recognize viral diseases that attack maize plants. He also learned what to do if one of his plants was infected.The next time he planted maize, using his new knowledge and new seeds, he harvested 27 sacks.

Fatuma also had a much better harvest in 2017 than 2016. She says: “In previous seasons, because of the bad climate conditions, in one acre I harvested less than three [100-kilogram] bags of maize. The result was, there was hunger in the family.” This year, she planted a new variety of maize that tolerates hot, dry weather and resists diseases. She harvested more than 15 sacks of maize.

She says she would like to continue receiving farming tips and reminders on her phone. She keeps her mobile phone with her all the time, and not just for calls and messages. She also uses it as an FM receiver, to listen to her favourite radio programs.

This project was made possible with support from USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund, through the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Tanzania. For more information about the Fund, please see:

This story original appeared in Barza Wire, our online agricultural news service that shares stories and resources about small-scale farmers in Africa. Read the story here.

About the author
Jaime Little is a volunteer with the Uniterra program, working as the Barza Wire Advisor, based in Arusha, Tanzania. She is taking a leave of absence from the CBC/Radio-Canada in Montreal where she is a producer for CBC North and produces four daily live current affairs radio shows plus newscasts and digital.

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