Balancing Technology and Human Touch in Agriculture Extension Services

Balancing Technology and Human Touch in Agriculture Extension Services

For farmers who do not trust or simply do not understand information technology, successful organizations must balance new technology and human interaction in agricultural extension services, as I learned at ICTforAg’s “Seeding & Scaling Digital Extension Services” session.

The Power of Video

Alex Dunlop, Director of Business Development at Digital Green, said human interaction is what actually creates behavior change and provides the comfort level necessary for someone to take a risk. Digital Green has integrated technology and personal touch into their digital video training for smallholder farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

A YouTube for farmers, they partner with local organizations to create and upload thousands of “how-to” videos of original content in local languages, starring local farmers, which are freely available on Digital Green’s website.

But the greatest impact happens when agricultural extension officers moderate small group showings of these 8-10 minute videos. The extension officers leverage the videos as a teaching tool, pausing to ask farmers about what they remember from previous videos, what they think of the techniques being presented, and what they are adopting on their own farms.

Compared to traditional agricultural extension, Digital Green’s approach results in a seven times higher adoption rate of agricultural technologies, for a tenth of the cost, the organization says.

The Personalized Knowledge of Infomediaries

A balance of technology and face-to-face interaction makes two-way communication easier for smallholder farmers and extension officers in Bangladesh. Midrul Chowdhury, CEO and Founder of mPower Social Enterprises, explained how mPower’s Farmer Query System employs young, tech-savvy “infomediaries” to go out to farmers with a smart phone, capture an agricultural question or problem by voice, text or photo, and send it back to a dashboard connected to a cadre of agricultural experts.

The infomediary receives the experts’ response within 12 hours and then relays it to the farmers. This combination of mobile technology and human interaction allows farmers who do not own mobile technology themselves to access high-quality expert advice at no cost and in a fraction of the time required for traditional agricultural extension services in Bangladesh.

The service is currently funded by USAID, CARE Bangladesh and Dhaka Ahsania Mission, with plans to tap into private sector funding on behalf of agricultural input providers.

The Convenience of Locally-Hosted Content

For extension officers and beneficiaries in Nigeria without reliable internet access, HITCH Powered by Flexfinity Media offers a wireless router that stores content relevant to local populations, such as agricultural training videos. Any user who connects to a nearby HITCH can access the content offline, as well as communicate with neighboring users.

But co-Founder Chukwuemeka Uche Onuora emphasized that extension officers remain key to the use of HITCH, selecting the appropriate online content for the farmers they are reaching and facilitating group viewings. Information technology has opened up the opportunities to scale agricultural extension services to millions of smallholder farmers, but impact still requires the human touch to build trust and influence behavior change.

Samantha Bailey is working on the AgResults Initiative evaluation team at Abt Associates

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