|Cell phone services are helping agricultural extension agents in Cameroon reach farmers that would otherwise be cut off from vital information. Photo: F. Fiondella (IRI/CCAFS).|
West Cameroon, the rainy season. The roads are impassible. The pigs in the area are beginning to show symptoms of the deadly—and extremely contagious—African Swine Fever, and farmers don’t know what to do to keep it from spreading. This is the worst possible moment for farming communities to be cut off from their main source of agricultural advice and services: their local extension agents.
Jean works as an extension agent in this area of West Cameroon. When the virus started to manifest itself in the area, he turned to mobile phones to get critical instructions to farmers in his region. “Our mission was to eliminate any pigs showing the symptoms of the disease to prevent it from spreading to all the animals,” he explains. “Do I abandon my farmers just because of a heavy rain?” Not when the phone networks are still in working order.
“I called all group leaders and informed them about the situation and explained the symptoms in detail. A day later, ten farmers called me indicating that the symptoms were present in their production units. I explained how to eliminate the infected individuals and how to keep the others safe.” Thanks to Jean’s efforts and those of other extension agents, the community avoided catastrophic losses to their herds.
No mixed messages
Mobile phones are useful for more than just alerts on emergency situations. Any time farmers have a problem they can call their extension agent. Likewise, when extension agents have training information to transmit, they can do so by phone when other options are unavailable to them. Farmer group leaders receive the message and share it throughout the community using the accepted communication channels.
Timely information concerning agricultural policy, projects and other relevant information can be sent to farmers via SMS messages. For example, during the last growing season an SMS was sent to farmers informing them of the right date to start planting taking into account the season’s erratic rainfall. The farmers who missed the information ended up losing their seed.
In another season, research institutes in charge of developing new seed varieties were not able to satisfy the needs of all farmers. Immediately, an SMS was sent to farmers saying that 97% of them would not receive the seed from these institutes. They were then able to recourse to local seed varieties in case the improved seeds did not come through.
Apart from the SMS service, farmers can even attend agricultural training sessions via phone. Given an easy-to-memorize, toll-free number to call and express their problem, they can be linked with the proper technician right away. The farmers’ questions can usually be answered right away, but if more investigation is needed the technician can later call the farmer back with the information.
Farmers have been placing calls on a variety of matters, especially production techniques, plant pathology, plant diseases, fertilizer, and poultry, livestock and pig production.
A few dropped calls
Despite its advantages, there are several elements that can limit the efficiency of this kind of mobile phone service.
The first is literacy rates among farmers, which are uniformly low. Most farmers in the area (70%) have not gone past the primary level in their education. Some do not know how to use their mobile phones to make a call. Others know how to dial and receive calls but are not able to read their message. Furthermore, messages are sent mainly in French, effectively excluding English-speaking farmers. To solve this problem, some farmers seek assistance by their child and also by extension agents who help them learn to use their phone as a kind of work tool.
In addition, many rural areas in the production basin have limited mobile phone network availability. In many villages there is only one “hotspot” where you can sometimes receive a good signal, often farm from the home. Farmers not at the hotspot can’t receive and SMS messages or dial calls to their extension agents, so for urgent problems often don’t get an immediate solution. This problem is one that requires government involvement to finance the needed network infrastructure (antennas) in rural areas.
Mobile phones connect farmers that would otherwise be unreachable
Bad roads and heavy rain in West Cameroon could have been disastrous for a small farming community. But effective organization of community member in farmers’ groups, dedication from local extension agents, and simple mobile phone technology averted a potential crisis.
The fact that a technical advisor cannot be physically present at any point in time should no longer prevent farmers from getting the information they need. “Anywhere I am,” says Jean, “I am in permanent contact with farmers via mobile phone.”
Some of these services were provided by NGO ACDIC (www.acdic.net) in Cameroon. It was developed in the hopes of promoting local productivity to reduce importation of agricultural products.
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