Several discussions on Thursday last week were dominated by conversations around the best ways of connecting with farmers.
Keynote speaker Prof Patrick Okori (ICRISAT) told delegates despite the increased reach of communication technology, over 500 million people are not benefiting that much from agriculture due to limited access to relevant information and market knowledge, adding:
“The farming landscape has not changed, despite technological changes such as the proliferation of mobile phones…”
Okori said big data needs to be utilised and distilled so it can be used to guide decision-making. He also highlighted the important role that universities have to play in curating data in order to insure farmers were not exposed to irrelevant or confusing information.
The challenge of illiteracy was raised by delegates, but Okori alluded to ways of overcoming this issue through the innovative use of numbers or video in order to relay information in a way illiterate farmers could understand.
Ms. Catherine Mloza-Banda, a RUFORUM alumni from Malawi built on this point. Through the Farm Radio Trust she has been involved in broadcasting relevant agricultural information to farming communities.
“Not every farmer needs to have a mobile phone and not every farmer needs to have internet… sometimes they need simple things,” she said.
Mloza-Banda said solutions to illiteracy include the use of code numbers or voice messages which can be played back for farmers at no cost. She said videos also offered a means of communicating information to and between farmers.
But reaching individual farmers is only one side of the story, as speakers who followed pointed out. Getting communities on board with university research is a challenge that became a recurring theme throughout the rest of the session and the day.
Prof. Nancy Mungai from Egerton University in Kenya said although it can be challenging some of the benefits and impacts Egerton has noted, include increased productivity at the farm level and increased awareness and utilisation of agricultural technologies by farmers and students.
Mungai noted that the key barrier, however, is lack of funding. Other challenges include a lack of interest from communities as well as inconsistent research agendas and ‘fad’ topics due to research being directed by external funding.
She recommended the development of a funding model to support the university-community interaction and the creation of a framework that is flexible, sustainable and caters for multiple stakeholders.
Mrs. Norah Asio Ebukalin, Farmer from Popular Women’s Knowledge Initiative (P’KWI) in Uganda took to the podium to provide a farmer’s perspective.
Her initiative itself a product of university engagement, she said her community also needed convincing at first: “We knew that university was a place for putting things inside the shelves… and a place for talking very good English… and a place where things that fly that we don’t understand are kept.”
But, she said, the research and engagement initiated by the first visit that brought in students into the field was a great thing.
She reminded the delegates not to underestimate farmers just because they are uneducated and implored them to be open to farmer-led research. She said she would also like to see more farmers at RUFORUM events and told the audience they should be careful not to be dismissive of farmers, lest they miss their target.
“We have the needs, we can also tell you what we need…” she said.
Ebukalin challenged the academics to come up with innovative solutions to bridge communication barriers and warned that as long as long as hand tools are still in widespread use they may find it difficult to sell their ideas to farming communities:
“I have seen farmers in Malawi, they are digging ridges using their hands… as long as you can not invent a technology that can get us away from the hoe then adoption may be an issue for you tomorrow.”