As extension programs must increasingly accomplish more with less, information and communication technology (ICT) can be utilized to ensure that vital information continues to reach rural agriculture communities in developing countries. This document, drawn from MEAS / USAID Brief # 1: Options and Strategies for Information and Communication Technologies within Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services, explains various ICT tools and the role they can play in extension.
ICT stresses the role of communication as well as the integration of telecommunication and computer networks. If done properly the communication aspect of ICT strengthens understanding, reaches communities, and provides a method for people to both provide and access information.
It is important for project planners and implementers to understand the ICT options and select systems or combination of systems that are best suited to the target group, the overall purpose, and local context. Agriculture extension programs using ICT must ensure the technology used is appropriate for the targeted farmers, accounting for literacy levels and access to the technology. Any extension program must be developed with the characteristics of the receiver in mind and be able to adapt the message content and method of delivery as needed. When designing an ICT system to provide extension services, three questions should be asked:
- What is the problem or need that is being addressed?
- What is a realistic level of performance that can be expected?
- What are the long term objectives?
The answers to these questions and an assessment of the targeted group (e.g., their characteristics) are helpful in deciding which communication strategy should be pursued. One consideration is whether or not the communication should be a onetime message or a series of messages. It is also important to consider the type of content that will be communicated. Extension content generally falls into one or a mix of the following categories:
- Information (e.g., market prices, weather reports, pest outbreak alerts)
- Basic skills
- Training (advanced skills and techniques)
- Education (where the use of information requires critical thinking)
The various ICT tools must be tested before large investments are made in them, but given how access to technology services is increasing in developing countries, one can expect donors and governments to continue to push for ICT use in extension programs. As technologies develop and become more affordable, more communication options will be available to choose from. An extension program featuring both online and in-person training, for example, could make use of a mix of ICT tools and face-to-face contact.
Selection of Communication Technologies
Ranging from simple to complex, communication tools used for ICT strategies are growing in number and are being improved upon. Developments being made with computers, mobile devices, and the Internet are providing new ways to conduct trainings and facilitate learning. Technology will most likely continue to become cheaper, especially in the form of smart phones and tablets.
When crafting an ICT strategy, potential barriers to the use of ICT tools must be considered. Constraining factors could be a lack of infrastructure and electricity and/or high levels of poverty and illiteracy. Some technologies may not be reliable in rural areas, or they could be too expensive for community members to afford. The sustainability of an ICT system, beyond initial funding, should also be weighed. Discussed in this section are various ICTs commonly used in extension programs, along with pros and cons of each.
Broadcast technologies: Serving large groups of people
Broadcast technologies often have lower audience participation than mobile- or Internet-based ICTs; however, they have the potential to reach a large number of people. A combination of broadcast tools with other forms of direct community interactions can increase the adoption rate of the message being shared.
Radio is a low-cost broadcast medium that has broad coverage. Broadcasts can reach both men and women with low literacy. Audience participation can be maximized through call-in lines or by airing programs with multiple speakers. Because units can run on batteries or wind-up, compared to television, radio is a more reliable broadcast medium in rural communities and a cost effective method of extension. Farm Radio International, a not-for-profit organization that uses radio broadcasts to strengthen agriculture extension, developed participatory radio campaigns (PRCs) as a way to promote the implementation of various food security improvements among farmer populations. The PRCs encourage communities to form listening groups in which the content of the broadcasts is discussed. Farm Radio International found that the implementation of various practices was greater among ‘active’ than ‘passive’ listeners.
This higher-cost medium has had slower penetration over the years. With fewer opportunities for audience participation and less dependable electricity in developing countries, television has had less impact as an ICT tool. Both television and radio are affected by regional laws and political trends. The impact of extension communications via television and radio can be limited if a country restricts the number of television and radio stations or only allows government-sponsored media.
Video technology has greatly improved and is widely available. The ability to involve communities in production allows for more participation. An example of video technology being used in agriculture extension is the work of Digital Green, which uses a participatory video production approach that allows farmers to be actively involved, telling their stories and learning about best-farming practices within the context of training sessions. The Digital Green videos are available on the organization’s website and on YouTube. Their technology is suited to areas where the Internet and electrical grid are limited.
Mobile devices: connecting people and information
The rate of cell phone usage in developing countries has greatly increased over the years. There are as many as 79 cell phone subscriptions per 100 people in developing countries (World Bank 2011). In many countries mobile devices are having the greatest penetration of all ICTs. As would be expected, the technology is growing more quickly in urban than rural communities.
Low-cost mobile phones allow for direct communication with extension workers, and information can be shared using SMS technology. Women in many cases may not have access to this technology as they are less likely to own cell phones then men.
When using cell phones in extension programs, the ICT framework must be well thought out to be effective. Cell phones are best used for continued contact and sharing of information between farmers and extension workers. One such use is that of providing farmers with market-related information. For example, M-Farm in Kenya uses mobile technology to help link farmers to markets and for-profit companies. M-farm provides commodity prices along with facilitating bulk purchasing of agro-inputs and commodities.
Most programs using mobile devices to provide extension services are subsidized by grants and public-private partnerships, as the cost of the services is prohibitive for many farmers. Promoting practices that require a change of behavior (e.g. farming practices) might require a level of technology best provided with Internet-enabled devices instead of simple mobile phones.
Although Internet usage in regions such as Africa and Asia is limited by cost and the lack of reliable electrical power, use of the Internet is growing around the world, allowing agriculture extension to provide more support for farmers. There are many Internet-based tools that extension programs can make use of to raise awareness as well as to provide technical information and training. Some of those tools are introduced below:
Simple websites are used to provide links and other important information.
Websites with a database
Websites linked to a database allow users to find agricultural resources using search and/or navigation tools. Databases are often built by large agencies and governmental organizations. An example is the Africa Crop Calendar by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Web-based and asynchronous tools
Web-based and asynchronous tools allow users to obtain information whenever they have access to the Internet. This provides opportunity for self-paced ‘e-learning’, learning management systems, video and simulations. For example, YouTube is being used by NGOs and agencies such as Digital Green.
Synchronous tools provide web conferencing options ranging from simple Skype calls to more sophisticated webinars. Agrilinks often hosts webinars on agriculture development.
Other types of knowledge management
Knowledge management websites commonly collect various types of information – often from other websites – and sort it in a way that makes it searchable. As such, a knowledge management site is both a repository and a database of extensive, sharable information. Repositories are connected databases that allow sharing of information from internal and external databases. They draw information from other open databases, such as those offered by the World Bank and FAO.
Considering the amount of information being provided by government, NGO, international funders and others, there is considerable opportunity for project workers to gather information from open sources instead of recreating data themselves. It is possible to develop a knowledge management website that allows farmers to access and provide information. The more sources of information being drawn upon, however, the more difficult it is to maintain accuracy.
Social Media in agriculture extension
Social media are Internet-based tools that allow people to network and discuss concepts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter). Such networking can quickly move through a community of like-minded people. The challenge is to ensure that messages being shared are accurate and beneficial to the community. With the exception of producers attempting to sell their wares through Face book and Google, social media is used to a greater degree by those at a policy or training level than client farmers. However, there is opportunity for social media movements to benefit communities by building and improving links between people and information sources.
ICT for extension – matching tools and messages
As extension services continue to be needed around the world, there are opportunities for ICT tools to strengthen these programs. It is important to match the extension message with the proper ICT tool. Table 1 includes key functions of extension, types of information shared, and recommendations on the best ICT tools to be used. The capabilities of ICT tools and their users are expected to grow and improve, allowing for future expansion of ICT tools in extension.
|Extension functions||Type of Information||Frequency||Cost of Repetition||Best ICT Tools||Databases and Software Considerations|
|Linking farmers to markets||Information and knowledge||Constant||Low||Radio, texting, smart devices||Should be tied to an official commodities exchange or other pricing mechanism|
|Raise general awareness of opportunities||Knowledge, training and education||Consistent||High||Radio, smart devices, computers, Internet||Databases should pull from useful websites|
|Provide technical information, demonstrative or train||Knowledge, training and education||Consistent||High||Radio, TV, video, computers, Internet||Simulation and training software should be explored|
|Diagnose problems and recommend a solution||Education||Consistent||Medium||Mobile, smart devices, computers, Internet, social media||Databases should pull from similar problems|
|Respond to follow-up questions raised by clients||Knowledge, training and education||On demand||High||Mobile, computers, Internet, social media||Call center database needed|
|Provide mass advisories||Information||On demand||Medium||Radio, video, computers, Internet, social media||Emergency response software|
|Facilitate access to credit and inputs||Knowledge, training and education||On demand||High||Radio, video, computers, Internet, social media||Databases connecting buyers and sellers|
|Assist with business planning||Knowledge, training and education||Constant||High||Radio, video, computers, Internet, social media||Database connecting information business planning|
|Conduct surveys, M&E, enumerations||Education||Infrequent||High||Mobile, computers||Survey tools|
World Bank. 2011.ICT in Agriculture Sorcebook: Connecting Smallholders to Knowledge, Networks and Institutions. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
Vignare, Karen. 2013. Brief # 1: Options and Strategies for Information and Communication Technologies within Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Vignare, Karen. 2013. Paper Discussion #1: Options and Strategies for Information and Communication Technologies within Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
ECHO East Africa Notes
Bonaventure, Charles, and Jimmy Ebong. 2014. Linking Small Scale Farmers to Markets through a Value Chain Approach and the Role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). ECHO East Africa Notes, no. 3.
MEAS Case Studies
Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Grace Musimami. 2013. Case Study # 3: The Mud on Their Legs - Farmers and Farmer Videos in Uganda. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Harun ar Rashid. 2013. Case Study # 6: The Story of a Video on Mechanical Seeders in Bangladesh 'If We Are Convinced, We Will Buy It'. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Manfre, Cristina, and Caitlin Nordehn. 2013. Case Study # 4: Exploring the Promise of Information and Communication Technologies for Women Farmers in Kenya. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
MEAS Action Research Pilot Project
Cho, Khin Mar, and Donald Tobias. 2011. Assessing the Requirements for Electronically Linking Farmers with Markets. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
MEAS Rapid Appraisals
Bell, Mark, Andrea Bohn, Wilton Agatstein, Maria Paz Santibanez, Hussain Sharifi, Heather Cruise, and Megan Mayzelle. 2013. Rapid Appraisal of the ICT for Agricultural Extension Landscape in Tanzania. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Bell, Mark, Andrea Bohn, Curran Hughes, Kelsey Barale, Courtney Jullo, Amanda Lewis, and Jappy Santos. 2013. Rapid Appraisal of the ICT for Agricultural Extension Landscape in Ethiopia. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Bell, Mark, Andrea Bohn, Carrie Teiken, Nicholaus Madden, Elana Peach-Fine, Jessica Schweiger, and Julia Shuck. 2013. Rapid Appraisal of the ICT for Agricultural Extension Landscape in Ghana. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Additional MEAS Resources
Bell, Mark, and Andrea Bohn. 2013. Framework for Designing and Implementing ICT Supported Extension and Info Services. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Chapota, Rex, Paul Fatch, and Catherine Mthinda. 2015. The Role of Radio in Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services - Experiences and Lessons from Farm Radio Programming in Malawi. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Harvin, Kerry. 2015. Lessons Learned from Locally Produced Videos - the Approach of Digital Green in India. Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services.
Malone, Phil, and Josephine Rodgers. 2013a. A Guide to Editing with Adobe Premiere Pro CS6. AccessAgriculutre and MEAS.
———. 2013b. A Guide to Producing Farmer to Farmer Training Videos. AccessAgriculutre and MEAS.
Other USAID Funded Resources
Woodard, Josh. 2012a. Integrating Low-Cost Video in Agricultural Development Projects: A Toolkit for Practitioners. USAID / FHI360.
———. 2012b. Interactive Radio for Agricultural Development Projects: A Toolkit for Practitioners. USAID / FHI360.