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Surabhi Mittal, CIMMYT

Advice by mobile - a viable model?

Surabhi Mittal calls for locally relevant, well timed, practical and demand-driven farming advisories (© CIMMYT)
Surabhi Mittal calls for locally relevant, well timed, practical and demand-driven farming advisories

Surabhi Mittal is an agricultural economist, specialising in ICT and productivity, food security and agricultural policy. She works for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and is based in India.

In 2011, CIMMYT carried out a survey with over 1,000 farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains to understand the value of the agricultural information they received. The survey highlighted that the most important information needed by farmers was on how to respond to pest attacks and advice on crop varieties that could meet changing climatic conditions. What they got, however - from various sources, including mobile phone-based advisory services - was standard prescriptions on input use and general seed varietal recommendations.

The survey raises questions about the value of current systems of agricultural information delivery, not least those that operate through SMS and voice messaging. Can they deliver demand-led, 'actionable' and timely information, relevant to the local context, which strengthens farmers' capacity to make informed decisions and respond to emergencies such as frost, hail storms or floods?

Sadly, in many cases the answer seems to be 'no'. What's more, many services struggle with sustainability. When project support ends, information dissemination dries up, leaving the target group feeling cheated and mistrustful of information delivery through mobile phones. Building that trust in the first place is also a significant challenge. Like most of us, farmers generally trust face-to-face, interactive sources of information, such as fellow farmers and input dealers, and may be sceptical of the motives and reliability of mobile-based service provision.

Harnessing the potential

So how can we best take advantage of what mobile phones have to offer, as a means of delivering information? In a pilot project initiated in 2013 in Haryana and Bihar states, CIMMYT, CCAFS* and local partners are delivering information via mobile phones to around 1,200 farmers in eight villages, in order to help them adopt climate-smart technologies, and to measure the impact of the information received. Two voice messages are sent out daily, plus detailed SMS messages as and when required - all in the local language, Hindi. The messages give weather predictions and prescriptions, information about pests and remedies, and details about climate-smart technologies.

To be relevant, the service needs to be interactive, which is achieved in two ways. Firstly, a helpline is available for farmers to give feedback and lodge queries. Some queries are answered instantly; others are forwarded to experts, whose answers are collated and given to the farmer over the phone. Answers relevant to many farmers are recorded as voice messages for mass dissemination; recording and transmission of these messages are always done within a 24 hour period, to ensure timeliness.

The second means of getting feedback from farmers is through field scouts - one per four villages. Frequent focus group discussions and the use of structured feedback forms are also being introduced. While the process of responding to feedback demands very close and proactive work between the research team and field team, the increasing number of calls to the helpline and the growing listening rate for voice messages are proving a great motivation.

Achieving sustainability

In terms of sustainability and commercial viability, in most countries farmers receive agricultural information for a nominal cost or for free, from multiple sources including radio, television, newspapers, farmer group meetings and government funded extension services. Developing a commercially viable model of information delivery will only be possible if we can provide farmers with information that is not publically available, and which can help the farmer make crucial decisions to save a crop, increase productivity or decrease costs of production. While richer farmers are more willing to pay for this, if the benefits can be demonstrated, poorer farmers will also be willing to invest in information for better returns.

The capacity to precisely meet farmers' information needs is important, if they are to pay for the service. This is only possible, however, through use of a dynamic database, containing details of farmers' land size, cropping patterns, soil type, location, inputs and seed used and irrigation facilities. Such information - as well as farmers' mobile numbers - must be constantly updated by field staff and tele-feedback systems, to ensure continuing relevance. This is something that we are now attempting in the projects in Haryana and Bihar. Evidence so far suggests that while it is very challenging to meet the expectations of farmers, it is possible, if multiple agencies join forces in a network.

Timing is crucial: information on variety choice, for example, must be given long before the sowing period, in order to be useful. Alerts about crop disease must be made at the earliest possible stage of an outbreak, to allow farmers to protect their crop. Advice must be linked to the cropping cycle and backed up by day-to-day details of activities to be undertaken.

In areas where this kind of interactive information delivery is already undertaken by community radio, mobile phone based systems may provide few additional benefits. But community radio is not operating everywhere, and in such locations mobile phones have a role to play. Time and money will need to be invested with proper targeting and design, however, in developing teams and systems to consolidate and manage the content, run a phone-based help desk, update user information and build partnerships with existing extension services, so that information gaps can be better addressed.

*CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security

Date published: November 2013


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Dear Surabhi. In 1996 I demonstrated how to use the internet... (posted by: Greville Wood)


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