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Literature review: Communicating with smallholders

ASHC is pleased to share a literature review developed as part of the ASHC phase 2 scoping study.  Dannie Romney said: “The process of developing a phase 2 application has given us the chance to review the information on communicating with smallholder farmers.  We are committed to making all of our research, useful information and findings available on this website. Further lessons will be shared over the coming months.”

Communicating with smallholder farming families – a review by K Sones as part ASHC


There is considerable evidence in the literature that the information needs of Africa’s small-scale farmers are not being adequately met. This unmet need is widely regarded as being a major constraint to increasing productivity, which in turn is essential to improve food and nutritional security for a rapidly growing population and to decrease rural poverty.

Although the relative importance of and demand for different types of information varies in different situations, there is a consistent demand for information on new varieties, pests and diseases, use of pesticides and fertilizer, as well as weather, credit and markets.

Despite the massive increase in access to mobile phones across Africa in recent years –there will be one billion mobile phone subscriptions by 2015 (CNN 2014)  – the most frequently used sources of information are still the more traditional ones.

Extension services, family, friends and neighbours, and agro-dealers are all important face-to-face sources of information. Radio dominates as the main mass media source. As yet, the internet is hardly used by small-scale farmers.

There are usually more agro-dealers than extension workers in Africa. Agro-dealers are often included amongst the most frequently used sources of information and they enjoy a degree of trust. There has been considerable investment by donors in extending and strengthening agro-dealer networks over recent years, including more emphasis on their roles as sources of information and advice. They have the advantage that, as well as advice, they can also supply the necessary inputs for adoption of new technologies and some also have a role in output markets.

There are some documented examples in which school-aged children and young adults have successfully acted as conduits for information to their farming families. Although traditional agriculture is unappealing to most of Africa’s youth, a new type of tech-savvy young entrepreneurial farmer is emerging who is more likely to wield a smartphone than a hoe.

It is widely considered that the youth are more open to new ideas and more at home with new communication technologies, as well as being more energetic. This makes them well suited to acting as a link between new technologies and approaches and older, less literate and connected farmers. This is especially important against a background in which, despite the median age in African being just 19.7 years just 19.7 years (UNECA 2012), the average age of farmers is estimated to be over 55 (Nierenberg 2014).

Recently there has been a renewed emphasis on the ‘farming family’, as witnessed by the 2014 International Year of Family Farming (FAO 2014). This includes consideration of how men, women and youths, whilst playing different roles determined by their relative strengths and cultural norms, can all contribute to more productive, more profitable small-scale family farms.

Demand for information

There is widespread consensus in the literature that Africa’s small-scale farmers’ information needs have not and still are not being adequately met. Writing in 1995, a Nigerian author noted: “The non-provision of agricultural information is a key factor that has greatly limited agricultural development in developing countries” (Ozowa 1995). Ten years later Ferris (2005) argued that “in most African countries lack of accurate and relevant agricultural information [by small-scale farmers is a major factor constraining efforts to improve the agriculture sector”. More recently Obidike (2011)  noted that Nigerian farmers still face constraints in trying to access agricultural information including: lack of access roads for regular visits by extension officers, poor attitudes of some extension staff, poor radio and television signals, lack of electricity supply in most villages, lack of funds to purchase newsletters or leaflets on agricultural information; illiteracy and inability of radio and television stations to broadcast agricultural information programmes in native dialects. The situation in other sub- Saharan African countries is broadly similar.

Despite major advances in ICT, especially huge increases in penetration of mobile phones in rural Africa, this has yet to make the inroads many envisaged in addressing the information gap. Recent studies of preferred sources of agricultural information tend to rank mobile phones and especially the internet as relatively minor sources, behind more traditional sources such as family, friends, neighbours, extension services and agro-dealers. For example, a 2014 study in Tanzania found that none of the farmers surveyed used the internet as a source of agricultural information (Benard et al 2014)a similar study in Kenya also found no use of the internet (Spurk and Shanne 2013). The Kenya study also found that mass media, especially radio, was much more frequently used as a source than mobile phones.

Information need

A 2014 study of the information needs of rice farmers in Morogoro Region, Tanzania found that 82.5% of respondents wanted information to improve their rice farming. Of these, more than 80% wanted information on marketing, weather, credit, new seeds, storage, planting and pests and diseases (Benard et al 2014). A similar study undertaken in India found that information on diseases, pests, pesticides and fertilizer were the highest ranked needs of rice farmers.

A study of small-scale women farmers in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa found their main information needs related to weed control, especially after manure application; pests and diseases of crops and livestock; poultry feeds,predators and theft; soil fertility and seed dormancy (Yusuf et al 2013).

Work done during the 2000s in Southwestern Uganda found that farmer’s priority information needs concerned markets, post-harvest, seed management, natural resources management, soil analysis using local indicators, crop and livestock pests and diseases, and fertilizer management and application (Masuki et al 2011). In Kenya in 2013, priority information needs were listed as credit, new varieties of crops, diseases, water and fertilizer (Spurk and Shanne 2013).

Agro-dealers as intermediaries

Due to the limited number of extension workers in African countries, agro-dealers are often farmers’ primary points of contact for both agro-inputs and technical farming advice.

The number of farmers served by each extension worker is 950 in Kenya (New Agriculturist 2012), 2,500 in Uganda (The African Executive 2012) and 3,420 in Kaduna State, Nigeria (Kalusam’s Blog 2013).

In a report for the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation suggested that “agro-dealers have … become the most important extension nodes for the rural poor” (World Bank, undated). In Kenya there are about 10,000 agro-dealer shops (How we made it in Africa 2013) but just 5500 extension workers (CABI 2012).

Through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’s (AGRA’s), Agro-Dealer Development Programme, more than 10,000 agro-dealers have been trained toprovide the farmers that visit their shops with advice on new cultivation techniques and good agricultural practice. The project operates in 11 African countries, including Ghana, Mali, Mozambique and Uganda. The agro-dealers are encouraged to set up demonstration plots, establish information centres and organise input exhibitions as methods of delivering practical information to farmers. They also have a role in creating awareness of issues, such as pest-management techniques, that may arise in the course of the growing season.

Training emphasises the need to provide farmers with the products they need, not those the agro-dealers want to sell, if they are to retain their customers in the long term (ICT Update 2011)1.

Other development actors, such as Agmark, have also supported various interventions to strengthen agro-dealers in East Africa. This included providing training to agrodealers on technical knowledge of products so that this could be passed on to farmers at point of sale. Innovations such as establishment of demonstration plots near agro-dealers’ shops proved effective in creating demand for inputs such as improved seed and fertilizer (Agmark undated).

A 2009 survey carried out by National Survey of Kenya showed that 74% of respondents for whom farming contributed significantly to household incomes considered farm supply vendors to be ‘somewhat or very trustworthy’ sources of farming information (AudienceScapes undated).

A 2013 study of information sources used by small-scale farmers in Kenya showed, not surprisingly, that agro-dealers were less used as a source of information the further farmers had to travel to reach them. When asked to rank information sources in terms of degree of trust, although agro-dealers came below government extension, radio, other farmers and family, they were ranked much higher than ‘experts in agriculture’ or NGOs (Spurk and Schanne 2013)2.

In a 2014 study of preferred sources of agricultural information of farmers in Tanzania, agro-dealers were not identified as a preferred source of information. The top ranked sources were the family, radio, personal experience, neighbours/friends and extension officers (Babu et al 2014).

A 2013 study in Ethiopia identified government extension, farmers training centres and other farmers as the preferred source of information on agronomic practices, conservation farming and early warning and weather. For market related information cooperatives and the private sector were also preferred sources (Precise Consult International 2013).

A 2014 study of rice farmers’ information needs and search behaviours in Tamil Nadu, India found that the most frequently used source of information for the four most sought types of information – diseases, pests, pesticides and fertilizer –was input dealers who came out slightly above state extension workers (Babu et al 2012).

A study in India sounds a note of caution regarding private sector-led extension: the study characterised the Monsanto Smallholder Programme as using outmoded and largely discredited approaches to agricultural research and extension, closely resembling the T&V system. The programme was considered to have been designed and implemented in a top-down, expert-driven mode which aimed to facilitate a one-way transfer of technology from Monsanto‟s laboratory scientists and plant breeders to farmers (Glover et al 2009).

There does therefore appear to be evidence that agro-dealers can be successfully used as trusted conduits for delivering agriculture information to small-scale farmers. They have the additional benefits that they have local knowledge and can provide not only advice but also the necessary inputs and, in some cases, also act as conduits to output markets.

School children as conduits to share knowledge with farmers

In the early 2000s, the DFID-funded ‘Wambui project’ developed and distributed a series of comic-style booklets aimed at primary school pupils in Kenya. Each contained stories based on management strategies for dairy cattle. An underlying hypothesis of the project was that primary schools could be useful conduits into rural communities. Project staff concluded the hypothesis was true: primary schools were effective and trusted routes for delivery of information to poor households and children could act as bridges between print materials and illiterate parents (Bain et al 2002).

Another DFID-funded project investigated the sources used by small-scale Kenyan farmers to obtain their animal health information. The most common sources cited were radio programmes, chiefs’ barazas (community-level meetings) and farmers’ school-age children. The project found that farmers valued information received via their children more highly if it originated from external sources than from the children’s teachers. It was concluded that channelling extension messages through schoolchildren, or via radio, would effectively overcome the problems of reaching illiterate farmers (DFID Animal Health Programme 2004).

Young adults as conduits to share knowledge with farmers

It is widely acknowledge that traditional farming is unappealing to today’s rural youth in Africa who regard this as a livelihood choice of last resort (Proctor and Lucchesi 2012). There is evidence, however, that a new generation of young, tech-savvy farming entrepreneurs is emerging who are equipped with smartphones and active in social media. Their focus tends to be on intensive cultivation of crops with a short growing cycle that show a quick return (Ochilo 2014).

Younger household heads who engage in farming are more open to new crops and technologies that produce higher yields and also to post-harvest value addition and more profitable ways of marketing their produce. As a result they tend to earn higher incomes from their agricultural activities than older farmers (Davis et al 2007) . These younger farmers are likely to be actively seeking out and acting upon information and advice on better and more profitable practices.

The findings of work done in the cocoa sector in Nigeria support this idea: Adeogun et al. (2010) suggested that younger farmers would most likely be willing to spend more time to obtain information on improved technologies compared to the old farmers .

In Africa, as elsewhere, young adults will generally be better educated, more literate and more at home with information and communication technologies than their older family members. This suggests that young adults could act as conduits for agricultural information and knowledge linking development communicators with farming families.

In recent years there has been a renewed focus on family farming: FAO declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. Family farming is primarily family-labour based with the division of labour between the head of the household, usually the man, and women and the youth.

CTA suggest that the youth could act as the intermediary in the use of the new ICTs to support the family in family farming. As a key member in the family, the capacity of the youth has to be strengthened to support other members of the family, but also for them to utilize the innovations in their own farms. CTA provides training targeted at youths to enhance their ITC skills, support their innovations and encourage them to share their ideas to improve family farms (CTA 2014).

A 2014 study undertaken in Nigeria reported that more than 60% of respondents – who were typically 53- year old, male arable farmers – strongly agreed that youth should mobilize and sensitize peers and people for innovation dissemination. They perceived youth roles in innovation dissemination and utilization as being very important (Alao et al 2015)Differences in ways men and women access agricultural information and input.

Although women are widely acknowledge to constitute a large share of the agricultural workforce in Africa, cultural norms mean they tend to have less access to both agricultural information and inputs, less control over land and less influence over decision making then their husbands and other male counterparts. One result of this gender gap is that female managed plots consistently yield less per hectare than male managed plots (World Bank2014)

Amongst the factors impacting on this situation are: women are more tied to the home than men –due to the demands of child care and other domestic duties, as well as cultural limitations – and therefore are less able to travel to access training and sources of information and inputs. Also, in many societies, contact between men and women is severely limited – so, for example, male extension workers may not be allowed to address women farmers.

Women are also usually less well educated than their male counterparts: of the 800 million or so illiterate people in the world in 2008, two-thirds were women (UNESCO 2010).

Cultural norms tend to prevent women becoming extension workers in many countries: FAO estimate that 85% of extension workers worldwide are male; this is likely to be even higher in many African countries. An FAO study undertaken in 1988/89 covering 97 countries showed that only 5% of extension services were directed at women; tellingly, more recent estimates are not available (GTZ 2013).

A recent study by IFPRI in Ethiopia, where the public extension system works much better than in most other African countries, found that while 27% of men surveyed had been visited at home by extension agents, this was lower at 20% for women. Men often control access and use of mobile phones and radios, while lower literacy rates amongst women mean they are less able to utilise text messaging and other written formats. Women are 23% less likely than men to own a mobile phone in Africa (GMSA 2009).

A study in Benin showed that amongst rice farmers, more men than women own radios and they also listen to more rural broadcasts. In Kenya, 43% of calls to a farmers’ helpline operated by a mobile phone company, which cost USD 0.25 per call, were women (GMSA 2009).

Farmer field schools are considered to be effective at reaching women. This is because they take place in the community and are group activities so tend to be more culturally acceptable.

FAO suggest that women are much less likely than men to use purchased inputs such as fertilizers and improved seeds or to make use of mechanical tools and equipment. In many countries women are only half as likely as men to use fertilizers.

However, at least 30% of the 10,000 agro-dealers in Kenya are women. A recent study conducted in Western Kenya provides some interesting insights into how men and women use the agro-dealers (Okello et al 2012).

Amongst the findings were:

•   Women tend to purchase more affordable seed varieties.

•   Women farmers are more likely to take into account the taste/quality of the end product, especially for home consumption.

•   Women tend to prefer varieties of seed that they have seen doing well.

•   Women tend to understand their soil conditions, and will consequently invest in seeds specifically suited to their plot of land.

•   Women tend to buy smaller amounts of fertilizer than men at one time; in aggregate, however, they ultimately buy similar amounts.

•   Women more often attend training opportunities, such as field days, than men.

•   Women more often request credit and agro-dealers are more willing to provide this to them – reasons given included women are less mobile than men and therefore easier to contact, women more often belong to groups which can offer guarantees of repayment and women buy smaller quantities so the risk is lower.

At a 2013 workshop on plant clinics held in Uganda under the auspices of CABI PlantWise project, it was reported that 70-80% of those attending the clinics were women.

1 Makinde, K. (2011). Input from experts. ICT Update, 12 Oct 2011

2 Spurk, C., Schanne, M., Mak’Ochieng, P. M. & Ugangu, D. W. (2013). Kenyan Farmers and their assessment of information on agricultural innovatio