One does not need to travel far into rural Malawi to glimpse the daunting challenges facing the country’s many smallholder farmers. A short drive outside of the sprawling capital, Lilongwe, reveals countryside interspersed with small villages that are often difficult to access and lack basic infrastructure. For government administrators and development workers engaged in the agricultural sector, communicating with and providing information to farmers are some of the most serious of these challenges.
Like many sub-Saharan African nations, Malawi is heavily reliant on agriculture: according to 2011 figures from the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, the agricultural sector accounts for 35 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and employs 80 per cent of the total work force. Yet Malawian smallholder farmers often struggle with low productivity and low prices. Providing information on market conditions and improved agricultural techniques, known as agricultural extension, can help farmers overcome these issues. Transmission of this information, however, is challenging under conditions in much of rural sub-Saharan Africa.
Those trying to reach farmers often turn to technological solutions. Radio has been used for decades to broadcast important information to smallholder farmers. It remains the most economical and accessible means of communication for rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Through farm radio programming, farmers can be informed about market prices, planting techniques, pest control, and other essential information.
But radios are largely one-way forms of communication. How, then, can farm radio programming be tailored to suit the particular needs and concerns of individual farmers? The answer may lie in the rapid spread of mobile phone technology in rural Africa.
Mobile phones have revolutionized the way we communicate and the speed in which information can spread. Their increasing prevalence in places like rural Africa makes them a powerful tool for amplifying voices that often go unheard. With a mobile phone, a African farmer can call into a radio show to speak to an agricultural expert, send a text message to request a topic be covered in future programming, or receive direct notifications about market prices and weather conditions.
Together, radio and mobile phones form the cornerstone of what is known as information and communication technologies (ICTs). ICTs are platforms for communication; how they are used, and what messages are conveyed, is up to those who are utilizing the platforms. Their flexibility means that messages can be created in local languages, and the voice component of ICTs like radio and mobile phones can be used to overcome the obstacle created by low literacy rates. Many local governments and non-governmental organizations across the developing world are striving to use these technologies to reach underserved populations.
In Malawi, there is strong Canadian involvement in the use of ICTs for rural development. A relatively new non-profit organization known as Farm Radio Trust (FRT), an independent organization born in 2009 out of a research initiative by Canadian NGO Farm Radio International, is a leader in the sector. FRT is doing groundbreaking work by producing radio programming that is designed by and responsive to the needs of the farmers it is meant to serve.
The projects implemented by FRT are supported largely through a strategic partnership with Farm Radio International and partially through funding from the Canadian government. FRT’s success in the use of ICTs to empower farmers is illustrative of the path development organizations need to take. It is also a good example of the type of capacity building projects that international development funders should prioritize.
With ICTs such as radio and mobile phones, truly participatory approaches can be taken toward development work. It is well documented that a failure to take into account local context and knowledge is an issue that perpetually plagues development sector. There is no way to remedy this issue besides opening up communication with those who are meant to benefit from a project and genuinely listening to what they have to say. ICTs provide a useful tool to this end.
Let’s return to the Malawian countryside. The small farming villages that dot the countryside share many similarities: buildings are constructed of mud bricks and thatching, roads are unpaved, and walking is the primary mode of transportation. Two other similarities, however, are also evident: the din of a radio can always be heard in the background, and at least one vendor is selling airtime for mobile phones. These are promising observations for the potential of ICTs in rural development work.
Richard Farthing-Nichol is an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba. This summer he is working as a monitoring and evaluation intern at Farm Radio Trust in Lilongwe, Malawi.