Researchers explain how user-centered design produced a mobile platform (named 'Advice' in Swahili) that matches agricultural extension services with farmers' knowledge needs.
The mobile phone revolution has brought tremendous opportunities: with decreasing costs for devices and subscriptions, many of even the most resource-poor farmers can now be reached through their personal mobile phones. Agricultural advisory services can send farmers text and voice messages with detailed information about local prices, weather, or agronomic recommendations. Access to such information is often vital for farming success and adapting to climate change.
But what types of information do farmers really need? How do they typically use their mobile phones? And which information providers do they trust on which topics? Too often, the answers to these questions are just assumed. This means that many mobile services introduced to African farmers over the last decade – for example, agro-hotlines or SMS subscription models – end up not catering to farmers’ reality and quickly fall out of use.
For mobile advisory services to reach their full potential, farmers cannot be just receivers of information. Systematic work needs to empower farmers to communicate valuable information back to the extension service. Though rarely tested in practice, such two-way communication uses mutual learning to improve the quality of agricultural advice: Extension services can identify farmers’ information needs by attending to their specific questions, while collecting local knowledge and assessing farmers’ experiences with new practices. Such insights allow extension agents to give particular attention to the needs and experiences of specific, vulnerable groups. Women farmers, for example, tend to ask for different information than men, but their needs often go unnoticed.
In the light of this potential, the ‘What works where for which farmer’ project, led by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, developed a digital agro-advisory service that matches farmers’ abilities, preferences, and constraints, and provides the information they search for. The project partnered with the public extension service in the Mtwara region of Tanzania, and with Lutheran World Relief, an NGO that provides agricultural advice in Makueni County, Kenya. To develop a novel service without potentially misleading assumptions, the project used the participatory methodology of ‘User-Centered Design’: first understanding the existing information flows and knowledge needs in the community, and then developing a service based on these insights. Researchers started by asking farmers in Southern Tanzania how they currently access agricultural information, and what are the ‘bottlenecks’ of information flows. Interviews with farmers showed that agricultural radio shows are widely popular, but farmers often miss the broadcasts and cannot listen to the contents later. Extension officers, on the other hand, had constant interaction with farmers through normal phone calls, but they were often overwhelmed by the high number of calls.
These insights helped the design team develop a concrete idea: The digital advisory service should allow farmers to access 'radio-like' contents anytime through their phones. It should also reduce extension officers’ workload, but still let farmers get in touch with them directly. The research team devised different models for such a service, which were discussed until consensus was reached with farmers and extension officers in participatory workshops.
The inputs from farmers, extension services, researchers and NGO staff led to the creation of 'Ushauri' (Swahili for advice). In an automated hotline, farmers use regular phone calls to select and listen to agricultural audio contents. In these messages of 3-5 minutes, an extension officer and an experienced farmer explain a specific agronomic topic. In addition, farmers can leave further questions in the hotline. This combines with an online platform: farmers’ questions are sent as voice messages to an online dashboard for registered extension officers to listen to and then send back answers via push-calls. This feature is key in reducing the workload of extension agents. Because many farmers ask similar questions, for example, about land preparation or seed selection, a well-recorded answer can be sent from the online platform to any number of farmers.
In Tanzania (Mtwara region), together with Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI), Ushauri was tested with 97 groundnut farmers for a month. The service provided information about how to control dangerous aflatoxin, (caused by fungi attacking groundnut pods) which if consumed can severely affect human and animal health. During the pilot, farmers made an average of 14 calls per day. Interestingly, farmers’ preferred feature was leaving custom questions: 154 questions were made during the test period.
By asking questions, farmers received personalized advice in addition to the standard messages. At the online dashboard, where all farmer questions appear much like incoming emails, extension agents added relevant keywords to each question – for example, ’seeds’, ‘disease’, or ‘harvesting technique’ — which were analyzed after the pilot to identify trends in farmers’ knowledge needs. For example, a large number of farmers asked about preparing land before sowing, a topic that had not been previously covered. In response to demand, new audio messages will be recorded to add to the set of standard hotline messages, thus improving Ushauri after each season. Thus, over time, the service increasingly covers what farmers really want to know. That includes information about women's domains in farming - something rarely included in standard extension packages, which often focus on commercial and staple crops.
After the pilot, farmers also answered a usability survey, where Ushauri got a score of 80 out of 100, indicating good usability (farmers understand and enjoy how the service works). Extension agents also evaluated the service positively. Happy Daudi, an extension officer in the project, reported, “Ushauri has helped me to better manage my time. Instead of getting phone calls throughout the day, I spent one hour at my computer every morning answering farmers’ requests. This gave me more time to focus on other tasks”.
The project methodology is fully explained in a recent publication in The International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, available online (full PDF).
The following project documents are also available to download: