Friday, 9 March 2012

‘Smart phones’ facilitate virtual agricultural extension

Lack of access to adequate agricultural extension services is a major problem hindering achievement of sustainable agriculture and food security in Africa and other developing countries. Achievement of food security is the dream of most governments and agricultural development agencies in Africa and the rest of the developing world. Food security exists when all the people at all times have physical and economic access to adequate, nutritious and safe food for a healthy and active life. The United Nations identifies adequate access to food as a human right issue. Food security and sustainable agriculture are inseparable bedfellows, without which sustainable development is just but an illusion. Agriculture and food production constitutes the largest economic sector in the world providing livelihood for 40% of the global population. The millennium development goal number one aspires to eradicate extreme poverty and food insecurity. Agricultural knowledge and agricultural information are critical for achievement of food security in Africa and globally. The state organs which are mostly plagued by financial insecurity are the key providers of agricultural extension services in Africa.

Virtual outreach system for small scale farmers in the Caribbean Island could be a solution to the deficiencies of the agricultural extension services in Africa. [Software Developed by Anton Robinson]. A partnership between the University of the West Indies and a University of Greenwich graduate is using mobile phones to improve access of agricultural knowledge and information. Virtual agricultural extension  pilot project was tested in St Vincent and the Grenadines between October 2011 and January 2012, permitting adaptation to meet farmers' specific needs. To start with the virtual outreach system tested a question and answer service. This involved sending of questions and photos of pest and disease problems, taken on a mobile phone, through Short Message Service and uploading these on to the virtual outreach system. These were then directed to experts by the service manager. The farmers received a response within 24 hours.

The second trial was on a virtual training programme, consisting of e-courses on compost making and low-cost greenhouses by a team from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad & St. Augustin. The farmers were provided with a laptop and projector as well as training by the virtual outreach system, on use and maintenance of the equipments. Using Skype and YouTube, nine farmers were trained by Dr Wayne Ganpat, a lecturer in agriculture economics and extension. The virtual agricultural outreach system has received a positive response. The farmers have identified additional areas in which they require training and are demanding further virtual capacity building. This is an encouraging step and a security against the current climate change, as the idea can be replicated across developing world. Remember our security is in our hands.