ANALYSIS: Subsistent farmers in rural Tanzania can now use mobile phones to access vital information that helps them increase their harvest. The service has helped bridge the information gap.
Farmers in the remote village of Magole, located 288 km (179 miles) from Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, have been trying in vain to increase food production. Their sweat and toil often failed because they did not have the know-how.
But all that changed when the idea of using a mobile text messaging platform for farmers was introduced in the village. Farmers can now receive free access to vital agricultural information that helps them fight diseases, increase soil fertility and thereby boost crop yields.
Muhidini Kayanda, a farmer in Magole village has been using the platform to get advice on when to plant and how to deal with pests. The text messaging service, which he has been using for two years has helped him reap a good quality bumper harvest. “I cannot be much happier, this service is very useful, I get a lot of information to improve my farming and increase my income,” Kayanda said.
The 48-year-old farmer who is married with four children has seen an increase in maize production. He says he now gets up to 29 bags per acre, before embracing the new technology he only got six to seven bags.
Narrowing the information gap
The service is part of a project known as ‘the role of mobile phones towards improving coverage of agricultural extension services’. The UN food agency (FAO), describes agricultural extension services as an informal educational process directed toward the rural farming population with the aim of improving their living standards.
The Magole agricultural project is run by Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), a public university in Morogoro. According to the project’s founders, its aim was to bridge the yawning information gap between farmers and agricultural experts.
“Lack of timely agricultural information is a big problem facing most farmers in this (Kilosa) district, we hope that this initiative offers new opportunities to address the problem,” said Siwel Nyamba, a researcher with SUA’s Department of Agricultural Education and Extension.
Provision of quality extension services to Tanzanian farmers has for long been hindered by a shortage of agricultural field officers, this has in turn contributed to dismal crop yields.
Professor Lusato Kurwijila, one of the project’s coordinators, told DW, the use of mobile phones was the most efficient and cost-effective way to disseminate agricultural information, such as adapting to changing global weather patterns and dealing with new plant diseases.
According to Kirwijila, the idea behind the project was to take advantage of mobile phone technology since most agricultural officers who provided crucial information to farmers lacked the means of transportation.
Power of mobile phones
Experts from SUA have developed content of the desired information on farming which extension officers can easily access through their laptops. This data can then be instantly transmitted to farmers.
Under the project farmers get access to information on seeds, disease outbreaks and market information from their hand-held gadgets. “Extension officers will have information at their finger tip which they can send through a cellular network to as many farmers as possible with just a push of a button,” Kurwijila added.
The project, part of four-year agricultural research program, is funded by a Norwegian grant and is worth 72 million Kronor ($11 million, 9 million euros).
Statistics from Tanzania’s Communications Regulatory Authority show that the country has 21 million active mobile phone subscribers.
Praise from farmers
Most farmers in Kilosa have applauded the service saying it has eased communication. “I have always found it difficult to know the price of maize in Morogoro, now that information is available, thanks to this program,” said Andrea Jaka, a farmer in Kilosa.
In an interview with DW, an agricultural field officer in Morogoro Edith Kija said farmers who use the phone messaging service have increased their farm productivity.
Kija said the new innovation has not only helped extension officers overcome logistical challenges but also saves time. “I used to spend about six hours daily walking through the villages to reach farmers,” Kija noted, “Sometimes I was forced to sleep there until the following day, that experience will now be history.”