The farmer field school is a tried and trusted concept. In their own villages, farmers are taught by experts how they can improve their food production. But what if those experts cannot reach their village, because of Ebola for instance? Researcher and filmmaker Loes Witteveen came up with a solution: the digital farmer field school.
text Albert Sikkema photo Loes Witteveen
The idea of the digital farmer field school was born of necessity. The Dutch organization FairMatch Support was supporting 30,000 cocoa farmers in Sierra Leone in improving their production and qualifying for a Fair Trade certificate. Then came the Ebola epidemic in 2014. It was no longer safe for staff of the organization to travel to Sierra Leone, and the training programme came to a standstill. FairMatch came knocking at Loes Witteveen’s door via the WUR Science Shop. Witteveen teaches at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, and is a guest researcher with Wageningen’s Knowledge Technology and Innovation chair group. She had previously developed visual learning strategies for the Ghanaian cocoa chain, and the question put to her now was how she could support the certification process in Sierra Leone from a distance.
Witteveen developed an interactive training programme for cocoa farmers, to be delivered through a tablet. She used animations to help the – in some cases illiterate – farmers to work with the tablet in small groups. The programme was also equipped with a possibility to ask questions of trainers in a ‘back office’, long-distance.
Witteveen developed materials along these lines on crop protection, an important topic in the Fair Trade certification. Hitherto, farmers got advice on this from agricultural extension workers, who showed them pictures of destructive diseases and pets. Because the extension workers could no longer visit the cocoa-growing region, Witteveen turned the tables. Now the farmers could take photos of a pest or disease with their tablet, and send it to the extension worker.
The design also included a knowledge bank in which the farmers could look up information on cocoa production. And because some of the farmers were illiterate, and they also had to collect data and fill in documents for the certification, at their request there were also modules on reading and arithmetic.
Witteveen tested the prototype in three villages in Sierra Leone. Together with Wageningen colleagues, she evaluated the results last month in the journal Telematics and Informatics. The cocoa farmers were enthusiastic, could relate to the animations, and were capable of navigating their way around the programme. They also went out together to take photos of diseased trees and were in regular contact with the back office. For the extension workers, the innovation took some getting used to, says Witteveen, because they suddenly had to answer questions and actively present knowledge. They realized that they needed a back office themselves, to be able to answer all the questions.’
Altogether, this is a highly promising learning strategy, conclude the researchers, because the farmers can use it to actively study problems, and can decide for themselves when to seek advice or ask questions. But it has its limitations too. Witteveen: ‘To use the tablet interactively you need electricity and a telephone connection. There were not many farmers in that part of Sierra Leone who had access to a charger. What is more, you need a well-trained and accessible back office.’
In spite of the potential of this first digital farmer field school, it is no longer functioning now. ‘We had a big EU project in Sierra Leone but that has been completed,’ says project leader Ewoud de Groot of FairMatch Support. ‘Now we are looking for follow-up financing.’ Since the end of the Ebola crisis, farmers have been trained in the old way again, through group meetings with extension workers.
De Groot would like to develop the digital learning environment further, and test it with Loes Witteveen. ‘For us it is not just about the tool itself, but even more about the innovative knowledge exchange with farmers in developing countries. The group meetings with extension workers are pretty top-down. In the digital environment, farmers can decide for themselves which knowledge they need. And in turn, we can learn how farmers acquire knowledge through the tablet. That is because we can monitor the behaviour of the farmers on the tablet, which means you get direct feedback. And that can further improve the interaction and communication with the farmers. So if we get further financing, we want a follow-up.’
Witteveen is not twiddling her thumbs in the meanwhile. She is now developing a second digital field school for a very different part of the world: Mongolia. The agricultural research institute there was working on an extension project for nomadic pastoralists, with support from an Australian institute at which a Wageningen alumnus was working. The alumnus knew of Witteveen’s work and invited her to a workshop on visual learning strategies, at which she presented her programme for the Sierra Leonean cocoa farmers.
Witteveen is now supporting the development of a tablet for nomadic pastoralists in Mongolia. On this tablet, they can find out, for instance, how they should manage their herds in the face of climate change. ‘Now that there is not much grass on the steppe, farmers tend to want to keep more livestock so as to build up buffers, whereas they would be better off keeping less, but healthier, livestock.’
The tablet can offer a solution in Mongolia, thinks Witteveen, just as it did in Sierra Leone. The digital learning environment can have added value for isolated farmers, certainly if it enables them to put questions to researchers and extension workers hundreds of kilometres away. The Mongolian research institute has tested a prototype in recent months. If the evaluation is positive, there will be a follow-up.
Witteveen thinks the digital advisor could also be a way to get young people involved in agriculture again in less developed countries. And it is not just the children of farmers that she has in mind. A student from Sierra Leone is currently researching whether the digital farmer field school could contribute to the reintegration of child soldiers into agriculture in Sierra Leone.
The cocoa tablet can also open up a whole new world for the farmers. Witteveen produced a film for the tablet which shows how cocoa is processed into chocolate in the Netherlands. ‘The farmers saw “their” cocoa arriving at the factory, and how thoroughly we clean the cocoa beans here before processing them. Then they understood the strict certification rules. It helps if you show farmers the production chain.’