ICT Helping Bridge Information Gap for Malawian Farmers
Malawi is one of the developing countries trying to tap into the benefits of the digital world. Despite its limited resources, the country is reaping the benefits of modern Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in different sectors, including but not limited to health, education, finance and agriculture, though with glitches.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the country’s economy, and such players in the sector are trying to take advantage of different ICT tools to improve farming, which makes up for the ways of earning a living for almost 80% of the 18 million-plus population.
In their analysis, Aness Mwale and George Kalungwe discuss the potential that the use of ICT tools has in boosting farming in the country, especially in information dissemination considering that the country has a gap of nearly 1000 agricultural advisory staff on the required 3 million.
When we arrived at Lirangwe on the outskirts of Blantyre City, we found McPherson Anzeru Mabvuto busy looking at his phone. He told us he had just received a text message from a farmer-centred nongovernmental organisation that works with farmers in providing them with agricultural advisory information.
It read: Dear, farmer, have you yet sourced your seed for this season? If not, please do so now as the rains are about to start. Remember, for your maize crop to do well, plant one seed per station. To cut costs on the fertilizer you can also make compost manure.
Mabvuto is a member of Mwayiwafika Farmers Club. He has been farming for 25 years. In the early years, his group used to have frequent visits by extension workers to give them advice on the best farming practices.
However, over time this changed. Faced with competing needs in the agriculture sector, the government cut on the budget for extension services and now provides such services on what is called demand-driven-basis.
Extension workers no longer conduct periodic visits to farmer clubs but only when there is a specific need. This has led to farmers seeking optional means to get information.
Bridging the gap
Radio has been the highly considered option, but now with the advent of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), it is becoming much easier. Farmers do not have to worry about having specific times to listen to the radio. With just a mobile phone, for example, they get information handy and in real time.
Mabvuto prefers the use of these ICT tools in receiving information, because, he says, the information reaches a wider group of people, unlike with extension workers who have to travel long distances to reach out to farmers in most cases.
“These new technological ways, including the radio, are effective because they are able to reach a wider group of people in a short period of time compared to the use of extension workers,” says Mabvuto.
Several kilometers away from Lirangwe, in Machinjiri, Blantyre, lives another farmer - Edina Mitembo. She is the secretary of Chigodi Farmers Club. She tells us the use of ICT is more effective as farmers get apt information at the right time.
“We prefer the use of these new ways of sending and receiving information because our extension workers reside far from us which makes it hard for us to communicate with them in time. Sometimes they visit us at a time when what [the problem] we wanted them to help us on has already gotten worse,” narrated Mitembo.
In developing countries like Malawi, ICT in agriculture is increasingly becoming crucial in providing farmers with vital information pertaining to sowing, crop protection, and improving soil fertility that enables them to harvest more crops.
Currently, Malawi has only 2000 agricultural extension workers instead of the required 2880, according to Pearson Soko, the Director of Extension Services in the Ministry of Agriculture who acknowledges ICT could play a role in filling this huge gap.
Soko says the ministry is embracing the ICT in working with farmers having realised that Malawi is now part of the digital world, leveraging its traditional radio and video information dissemination tools under the Agricultural Communications Branch (ACB).
Soko added: “We also have a videography section which produces TV programmes that are sent to different media institutions, both private and public, to broadcast and some are archived and are used for showcasing during functions so that farmers can learn from those videos."
Not only the ministry of agriculture but also independent organizations are taking advantage of modern ICT tools in agricultural advisory services.
One organisation that is active on the ground is Farm Radio Trust (FRT). FRT Chief Executive Officer George Vilili explains that tailor-made ICT tools are helping farmers with advisory information in the absence of extension workers.
He says the ICT tools are convenient enough as one is able to provide information to a specific farmer and at the right time, which is effective particularly using phones.
Expounding on the traditional means of ICT, the radio whose interactivity is limited, Vilili, says nowadays there are many applications that are more interactive.
“As one way of clearing the gap that is there between extension workers and farmers, FRT created Mlimi Hotline where farmers can call extension agents for free on 8111 for Airtel network and 7111 for TNM network users and talk to extension agents for free; ask question and get the feedback,” explains Vilili.
He adds that apart from Mlimi Hotline, FRT also has a 24-hour Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system where farmers can interact with extension agents and get the required information that they are looking for.
Jacob Kumwenda is the Project Manager for Agricultural Commodities of Exchange (ACE). He explains how ACE is using different platforms to help farmers get information on crop produce markets:
“We have Zaulimi App where farmers get extension services, market [their] commodities and get prices for the day. We also use WhatsApp where farmers subscribe and start receiving prices of commodities and the third platform is the use of feature phones where farmers receive messages three times a day.”
Apart from on-farm advisory services, farmers are also using ICT to get weather information which is a critical element in farming.
Lucy Mtilatira, the acting Director in the Department of Meteorological Services and Climate Change, explains how farmers benefit from the information they are provided:
“We are working with farmers to make them understand that climate should be factored in when they are planning farming activities. They should be able to understand that, for example, in this particular area there may be a high risk of having a shorter rainfall season. In that way, they should use a variety of seeds that will conform to that weather.
Not without challenges
The ICT revolution in agriculture is not without challenges. Agricultural expert Tamani Nkhono Mvula is worried about the high levels of illiteracy among farmers and high data costs in the country.
At the end of 2022, Malawi’s internet penetration stood at 20.2 percent.
Farmers that are using ICT in getting agriculture information confirm some of the challenges.
“The challenge has been the issue of access and also high illiteracy levels among small-holder farmers in the country to interpret the information they receive from these ICT tools,” observes Mvula.
Mabvuto and Mitembo suggest some solutions on how farmers can be helped to cope with the challenges they are facing.
Mabvuto says that the Malawi government should work hand-in-hand with organizations that are aimed at disseminating information to farmers, adding that the government should also consider increasing the number of extension workers, which will help farmers get help on the information which they did not understand through ICT tools.
Mitembo is appealing to some non-governmental organisations to provide farmers with mobile phones so that every one of them has access to these ICT tools.
Villili also admits that the use of ICT is relatively expensive as it may involve multiple platforms to be effective and that there are still some problems that some platforms cannot solve.
“Not all programmes can answer the questions that farmers can have and get feedback hence the need for a variety of platforms for better results,” he observes, “To improve the use of ICT in agriculture in the future, Malawi must improve connectivity and accessibility of Internet services.
“We have a younger generation in the country which is digital literate hence enforcing the use of ICT tools in the agriculture sector can bring a huge impact in the country,” he adds.
Time to up the game
The Farmers Union of Malawi, having realised that ICT is the future of agriculture communication, is not being left behind. FUM chief executive officer, Jacob Nyirongo explains how the organization plans to grow the sector:
“As Farmers Union of Malawi, we plan to come up with a safe sustaining system that could support farmers to access information on how they can find buyers and where they can interact with the private sector. This will be in the form of a one-stop centre.”
As noted, one hindrance in the use of ICT in agriculture is access as most parts of the country are not connected to the Internet and the national electricity grid.
Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) is the hub of all ICT services in Malawi. Its spokesperson Zadziko Makhambo says as a regulator they have a five-year plan through the Universal Service Fund to ensure every Malawian is connected to the Internet which will in turn benefit farmers.
"We are optimistic that the five-year project will help to improve the network in the country and we will have low-cost Internet through the provision of community-based Internet service providers,” Mankhambo disclosed.
At the moment, the traditional means of extension-worker physical interaction approach serves about 3.7 million farming households in Malawi. This figure could significantly improve if more resources are put into the enhancement of ICT in agriculture information dissemination in the country with the mobile phone as the basic tool. After all, statistics show that currently there are 60 mobile phone subscriptions registered for every 100 people in Malawi, which is not quite bad for a developing country of our status. It is high time Malawi embraced e-agriculture to the fullest.
(Filed by Aness Mwale and George Kalungwe)
Last modified on Sunday, 19/02/2023