GFAR blog

To App or not to App?

Nomadic Herder in Mongolia

Apps and other forms of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) seem to be cropping up everywhere. Like the most ambitious of weeds, new ones appear almost daily. As a result, people may find it hard to sort out the junk from the gems, especially when it comes to sustainable agricultural development.

While smartphones and other technology have become the entire buzz lately, much of the world, particularly rural and agrarian populations, lack access to the many forms of communication that the rest of us deem ubiquitous.

This question, of how to improve communication between development organizations and farmers, kept recurring at the High Level Policy Dialogue on Investment in Agricultural Research for Sustainable Development in Asia and the South Pacific in Bangkok,

But can we eat apps?

If we could eat apps, I would, but we can’t. So what are some alternatives?”, asked Dyno Keatinge of the World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), during the panel on Knowledge Management for Sustainable Agriculture on Tuesday.

I interviewed representatives from various areas of Asia and the South Pacific. Here’s what they had to say about more traditional ways to communicate knowledge in their country.



On the steppes, farmer communication is sporadic as much as it is nomadic. The farmers, who are mainly pastoralists, spend half of the year up in the hills, tending to their animals. For the other half, they move into the valleys to let their animals graze. Altantuya Tseden-Ish from the Asian Farmers Association Mongolia (AFA), told me about communicating with farmers in her home country.

Connectivity, through anything, is limited and data technology and even radio transmission is minimal. Most communication is still primarily through spoken word. Though the distances between herding families may be vast, through an impressive word-of-mouth network, everyone knows where everyone else is. So non government organizations, farmer extensions and other groups like the AFA, rely on word of mouth to schedule meetings with farmers and to pass on information. 

Method of transmission: human and horse.



At the other end of the spectrum, we have hyper-connected India, where although owning a phone may be cheap, there are still barriers to communication.

The Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), is a nonprofit research organization that hosts a database on agriculture and uses the information to help out farmers. Andrea Powell, a representative of CABI, explained one initiative where they teamed up with the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited and AirTel, a mobile phone company, to distribute text messages to farmers on real-time weather alerts, crop prices, and other helpful “nuggets” of information. The messages were tailored according to the regional language and also made accessible for those who couldn’t read – local call centers had the messages translated from English and distributed by phone call. The program was a success and ran in 18 different states reaching over 3.6 million direct subscribers to the service in 2008 and 2009.

Method of transmission: cold calling.



Fr. Francis B. Lucas from the Asian NGO Coalition runs 54 radio programs in Philippines.  He and his staff have broadcast programs to empower women in farming  and have used radio power to update Filipinos in rural areas on agricultural information.

But one of the most innovative and successful programs he recounted, consisted of teaching primary and secondary school students about farming together with Infanta Integrated Community Development Assistance, Inc. The excited children would get their own plot of land at school to grow vegetables along with lessons in the classroom. They would then take what they learned in the classroom back home to their parents to incorporate into their personal farming techniques.

Method of transmission: cheerful children.



For those who don’t have access to, or cannot understand new-fangled technology, smartphone apps and data messaging services don’t hold a candle to simple, traditional tactics. Sometimes to get the farmer-to-organization information across, simple solutions are all we really need.


Blogpost by Janine Furtado, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – J.Furtado(at)

Picture courtesy Michael Chu

This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Regional Consultation for Asia and Pacific region. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

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