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This blog highlights the key messages of a presentation by the Africa RISING Malawi program coordinator, Regis Chikowo (Michigan State University) on 13 November 2019 at the 2019 ASA-CSSA-SSSA International Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Approximately 4,000 scientists, professionals, educators and students attended the meeting whose theme was ‘Embracing the digital environment’.

Key messages

  • Interactive voice response (IVR) messaging can support tailored communication and the adoption of better maize agronomy among smallholder farmers. 
  • Substantially more farmers who received tailored IVR messages planted maize early compared to those who received generic messages, as indicated by farmers who participated in an IVR survey on planting time practices.
  • Timing of urea side-dress fertilizer application and weeding two times were some of the recommended practices that IVR treated farmers reported taking up, to a substantial extent relative to control farmers. 
  • Overall, IVR survey responses were modest (40% of treatment farmers and 35% of control farmers completed the IVR survey), and there is a need for triangulation through in-person interviews and measurements of maize yield through yield cuts to conduct a proof of concept.

Africa RISING works at the smallholder farm household, community and landscape levels. The program provides pathways out of hunger and poverty by offering demand-driven, locally tailored, resource-saving agricultural innovations for sustainable intensification that improve farmer livelihoods and resilience while conserving environmental resources.

However, stifling realities like spatiotemporal diversities, complexities of smallholder farming systems, and limited access to information and extension services for farmers often add up to puncture the scale-up of sustainable intensification practices. Innovative methods and technologies and approaches to beat these challenges are therefore a necessity. In Malawi, the program is piloting the use of interactive voice response messages to disseminate maize agronomy technologies, and the early results offer interesting food for thought!

The current indicative extension worker: farmer ratio in Malawi is often greater than 1:2000. Extension is complemented by a network of lead farmers; but this combined effort still falls far short of the requirement for effective dissemination of technologies to farmers. Interactive voice response (IVR) is a technology for reaching farmers who own cellphones in remote areas with agronomic messages. Farmers call a code number on their phones, listen to pre-recorded audio messages and respond to questions by pressing preset numbers on their phone keypads to access specific messages/record their responses onto the platform. These farmers gradually learn the art of good farming without the physical presence of an extension agent.

In 2018, the Africa RISING team in Malawi led by Regis Chikowo in collaboration with a global social enterprise firm VIAMO, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, which is led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), initiated a pilot activity to establish the efficacy of IVR in disseminating maize agronomy messages to farmers. The team worked with two identical groups of farmers (treated/control), each composed of 140 households. The ‘treated’ group received IVR messages from three weeks before the cropping season until about maize physiological maturity while the ‘control’ group did not receive any messages. IVR messages sent to the farmers were about best maize agronomic practices that included land preparation, plant populations, fertilizer application and weeding. Later during the cropping season, the team conducted an IVR evaluation survey for both farmer groups, with follow up questions on maize agronomy. 

Contrary to the 80–90% reach among farmers during the earlier IVR dissemination activity, we had a 30–35% response to the evaluation. Most of the older farmers did not respond. The evaluation showed that IVR was effective at encouraging farmers to plant early but fertilizer amount use was not influenced by IVR messaging. This was expected because acquiring crop inputs requires more time than the one-month window exposure to new knowledge via the platform. There was also evidence that questions with more than three response options confused farmers, resulting in incoherent responses. This work will continue into the 2019/2020 cropping season with a larger sample size of 700 farmers.

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