GFAR blog

How to ensure farmers are not left behind in the digital transformation of agriculture

By Farm Radio International

Aliou Diallo, the technician of Radio Djimara, shows women from Kikala, a community in southern Senegal, how to access the call-in and polling lines run by Farm Radio International in support of the Scaling Her Voice on Air radio program.

At Farm Radio International, we field the question “why radio” more often than we care to admit. And, in a world where apps, blockchain, and artificial intelligence are exciting new ways of improving agriculture, we get it.

Our work looks a little like this: organizations often come to us with a problem — like adopting new seeds, or increasing maize yields. We talk to farmers about what they know — and what they don’t about that innovation. Then we work with trusted radio stations to develop an interactive radio program designed to help farmers try different solutions to that problem.

That’s the simple version. Behind those steps are years of research into what makes a good interactive radio program; expertise in communication for development techniques like social and behavior change communication (SBCC); training and resources for broadcasters into how to make programs inclusive, participatory, and engaging; and digital technology that turns these radio programs into a two-way conversation allowing farmers to ask questions, participate and engage in the topics at hand.

Still, why radio?

Too often, the digital transformation of agriculture leaves small-scale farmers behind. We use radio because we believe it remains the most inclusive, accessible way for farmers to access new information. When literacy is a challenge, where Indigenous languages are broadly spoken, and where farmers — especially women — still don’t have access to the internet, TV or smart phones, radio remains an essential tool for improving the lives of small-scale farmers.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

So, what can you do to ensure your digital transformation of agriculture projects are inclusive and participatory?

Meet your audience where they are

It might seem obvious, but using applications and tools that people are already using — but in new and creative ways — will often see higher success and uptake than designing an entirely new system and trying to convince someone to use it.

Our energy is often better spent giving space to listen to genuine concerns of rural audiences, addressing these concerns, and ultimately giving farmers a chance to make their own educated decisions around improved agriculture practices.

Design multi-modal agriculture projects

Our research shows that multiple interventions work better. While we use radio combined with mobile phones, we know that there is rarely something better to explain a new practice than in person training. Video demonstrations provide a middle ground, but might require internet access. Comic books are entertaining, but not everyone is literate. When all these channels work together to send and reinforce the same information, in different ways, more people are reached and uptake is proven to be higher.

Adompoka Felicia Abaane calls an Interactive Voice Response system run by Farm Radio International from her rice paddy in Yorogo, in northern Ghana. 

Seeing something once may not mean you will try it. Having that message reinforced in different ways means you might — or at least might consider it.

Consider the digital divide

Literacy, ownership, affordability and comfort with technology all must be considered when new technologies are proposed.

In the least developed countries in the world, 17 per cent of rural populations live in areas with no mobile coverage at all. Divides can be seen across genders as well. In Africa, only 20 per cent of women are using the internet, compared with 37 per cent of men.

While youth, and those with more resources and formal education may have better comfort and access to technology, it’s important that we consider those who won’t have the same opportunities.

Ensure feedback mechanisms (particularly immediate ones) are built into your project

The digital transformation of agriculture creates incredible opportunities for feedback by users. One of the failings of large-scale agriculture development projects is often that we monitor our progress infrequently, not allowing nearly enough time for course corrections. Constant, consistent feedback is critical.

“Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education,” writes Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is the root of participatory communication. If we want to improve agriculture, we need to truly listen, and enable farmers to take ownership of the solutions we present. Allowing for meaningful feedback by users is not only helpful, but is a necessary element to good communication.

Georgina Kishando John calls an informational phone line to ask what treatment would be good to treat the infection on her maize. 

Work with local actors

We can’t produce the same content and expect it to appeal to farmers across a continent. Not only does language differ, but culture, religion, local knowledge, mobile or internet usage, and even styles of engagement can change.

That is why Farm Radio has broadcasters lead in choosing content, meeting farmers and running their programs. They already have relationships, and by extension trust, with the communities they serve.

Working with, and training local actors to lead digital programs also means that expertise stays in communities, ensuring benefits can be sustained for years to come.

The takeaways

The digital transformation of agriculture provides major opportunities to reach more and more people with better tools to improve their harvests, and by extension, their communities. But we must be sure of one thing: that we do not leave the most vulnerable people behind in our drive to innovate. By centering underserved farmers, especially women, at the heart of our work, we can ensure that everyone can move forward together.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for April is ‘Digital transformation of agriculture’.  
Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.

1 thought on “How to ensure farmers are not left behind in the digital transformation of agriculture”

  1. Thanks for the post. It’s high informative and educative. Sure can only be from a place like Farm Radio International (FRI).

    I hope Weather forecasting messages are discussed and shared. The Farmers need such to allow proper planning for both planting and harvesting.


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