On June 3rd, 2016, I created a WhatsApp group for farmers to meet one of the research objectives of my doctoral programme. It is a small WhatsApp group of 96 farmers, who were chosen from 8 different districts of a hilly state Himachal Pradesh, India. Initially, I was little unsure about the type of conversations and information which were likely to emerge from the group. All of these farmers were unknown to me and were randomly chosen.
I met the farmers individually for the first time during my initial field survey trips across the state. It was during those visits that I discussed the idea of sharing agricultural information through WhatsApp. Though this was a new concept, many of them received it well. In locations with hills and mountains, transportation and mobility has always been a problem. As a result, opportunities for average farmers to interact with others are limited. Some of the districts of Himachal Pradesh such as Lahual and Spiti are situated at a very high altitude (average 3,000 metres).This state is known for glaciers and pastures remains separated from the rest of the state for almost 6 months a year. Such types of immense geographical barriers for delivering agricultural information have been overcome through the WhatsApp group. Infact, some of the most inquisitive participants in the group are from this region: they regularly ask very scientific and thought-provoking questions.
This WhatsApp group works in a slightly different manner
I feel grateful to my PhD advisor Dr. Mahesh Chander, Principal Scientist and Head of the Division of Extension Education, Indian Veterinary Research Institute with whom I initially shared the idea of using a WhatsApp model for the farmers. The model involved handling a WhatsApp group backed by the support of experts in diverse fields of agriculture, animal husbandry and horticulture. The experts provide information individually through WhatsApp to the group administrator (blog author) .The administrator shares the advice and information in an easy understandable form to the farmers. None of the experts form part of the WhatsApp group. This has been done to ensure a free exchange of information among the farmers.
The initial objective of forming the group was to assess the effectiveness of using WhatsApp as a two-way information delivery. This has been achieved to a reasonable extent as farmers have been regularly asking agriculture-related queries and have also shared their farming stories in the group. Every query presented by the farmers has been responded to in a reasonable time span, with a maximum time limit of 12 hours. The vegetable scientists, veterinarians, plant pathologists, entomologist, horticulture and floriculture specialists of agricultural university , horticultural university, animal husbandry department and department of agriculture in the state have voluntarily supported and provided timely replies to the questions and queries posed by the farmers. With time, I have also been able to receive technical support from other popular agricultural-based WhatsApp groups from other parts of the country such as that of Krishi Vigyan Kendra ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Krishi Jagran and the Pulse group.
Diversity in the group remains a challenge
The group members were randomly selected and as a result, there are variations in terms of age, education, cultural background as well as the type of agricultural enterprise. The group now has members of varied and mixed enterprises carrying out activities in cereal production, vegetable production, dairy production, goat entrepreneurship, poultry, horticulturalism and floriculturism. Further, they undertake agriculture as either a full-time or as a subsidiary activity. The only commonality among them is that they are WhatsApp users. Due to their different backgrounds, information delivery suited to their needs remains a challenge.
Regular farmer queries are the salient features of the group
To date, 105 queries have been received in a span of nearly three months in this group. Considering that the Whatsapp group is small (with 96 farmers), the number of questions is quite encouraging and the queries are diverse. Many times, farmers seek advice when they face a risk of loss of vegetables due to disease, pests and poor growth. Quite often, the owners are concerned about ailing pregnant livestock or a livestock problem which is unforeseen to them. The worries of these farmers are addressed to a certain extent by the timely response from the experts. This clearly showcases the potential of this tool to serve the farmers’ information needs.
An Awareness workshop that resulted from the WhatsApp group
One of the interesting developments that emerged through the WhatsApp group was that an awareness workshop was organised. During a discussion in the WhatsApp, the idea of setting up a co-operative contract for goat farming emerged. This resulted in a contractual agreement being reached with other farmers to ensure the availability of breedable female goats for breeding purpose .A goat entrepreneur, Mr. Anil Jamwal from Mandi district, came up with the idea as he faced a shortage of breedable female goats in his vicinity. The idea was well received by another progressive farmer, Mr. Karan Chandel from Bilaspur district. Mr.Chandel has good linkages with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra(Agricultural Science Centre), Bilaspur. So, he set up an awareness workshop on goat farming in the local KVK and the idea of co-operative goat farming was well received by many other farmers. This clearly reflects the role of the WhatsApp group in organising needs-based trainings and awareness programmes by extension organisations.
WhatsApp is an easy and cost effective way to establish and maintain linkages with smartphone farmer clientele. As researchers, it does let us know more about agricultural problems at the grassroots level. As an extensionist, it helps build trust and credibility among the farmers. Overall, it is a wonderful tool to promote and support networking, encouragement and enthusiasm among the farmers. Extension-based organisations should encourage and support this innovative outreach tool.
Guest blog post by Dr Devesh Thakur (drdth4(at)gmail.com), PhD Scholar,Division of Extension Education, ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute.
The views expressed are personal, and cannot be attributed to ICAR or GFAR.
Photo credits:Devesh Thakur