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Mobile phones fight disease and poverty – An interview with Whitney Gantt

At the beginning of this year, three different banana diseases were attacking East Africa, devastating farms around the region and exacerbating the prevailing food crisis. To help prevent the spread of such diseases, it is vital that smallholder farmers have access to comprehensive information about crop conditions in the region. As it is, such information is often incomplete or unavailable.

For example, during a previous attempt to contain a banana disease outbreak, some smallholder farmers in Uganda were told to cut the male bud from their banana trees – sound advice designed to stop the spread of the disease by bees attracted to the buds.  However, the information they received was incomplete: the very act of cutting the buds using the same contaminated tool meant that entire plantations were instantly wiped out. No wonder, then, that smallholder farmers began to doubt the information given to them.

The agricultural challenges in Uganda are numerous, but the country’s agricultural scientists now have the potential to confront some of the obstacles that smallholder farmers are facing. An AGCommons Quick Win Project (Community Level Crop Disease Surveillance), which was part of the much larger Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) Project being implemented by the Grameen Foundation, has played a small but valuable role in testing a mobile crop monitoring system that will ultimately allow research institutions to target data collection and interact directly with smallholder farmers in the field.

AGCommons recently caught up with Whitney Gantt, an ICT Innovation Technical Program Officer with the Grameen Foundation and the leader of the recently-completed Quick Win Project, shortly after it was announced that the CKW Project had just received a grant of US$4.7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to scale up its activities.

Were you expecting the grant from the Gates Foundation?

We were expecting the grant, but we are still very excited about it. We initially had a planning grant from the Gates Foundation to assess the feasibility of the CKW model, and after that came the Quick Wins grant, through which we were able to deepen the concept and test a very specific application of the model. I think that really strengthened our ability to demonstrate the model’s potential impact.

What does the CKW model entail?

Basically, the Grameen Foundation goes out into rural communities and finds, recruits, motivates and trains village community members, or community-based information officers known as CKWs, who can provide services to farmers using mobile phones, thereby helping to lift the farmers out of poverty.

Under the AGCommons project, farmers were given the information they needed on banana disease control as well as a range of other topics under the CKW: market prices, input supplier directories, weather forecasts, agronomics tips and techniques, an agricultural hotline and a call center. Normally, farmers can’t access such information, either because it’s too distant to travel to see their agricultural extension officer, or because the information doesn’t exist in a way that allows for it to be disseminated easily and cost effectively. At the same time, the CKW also collects information about farmer needs and challenges and feeds it back to the research institutes, private companies, government agencies and NGOs serving the farmers. This is done via mobile phones to a central data base, where the information is then packaged and analyzed for consumption by a range of actors.

How did you recruit the CKWs?

We looked for people motivated by community outreach. Other factors such as literacy and fluency in English were also considered – the project’s short time period didn’t allow us to develop services in multiple languages. Local partners already working with farmers helped identify candidates to undergo a trial period. We whittled the number down to 38 in the end. The idea was not to create new farmer associations or another entity, but to complement the systems already on the ground and give farmers knowledge, training and tools to extend their reach further.

CKWHow did the smallholder farmers respond to the CKW model?

They embraced it quite a bit. CKW’s would go to farmers groups or markets, or to wherever people congregated, to advertise their services. Then they would carry out a survey to inform farmers of the diseases on their plantations and give recommendations on how to address those diseases. In the process, we discovered there was much more demand for the CKWs than we were actually able to fill. Farmers outside the CKW’s service area were also requesting that we carry out a survey. When we carried out a survey on one farm, we often had people from neighbouring farms and communities coming to observe and learn how to control diseases.

A local CKW guaranteed consistency and also gained the trust of the farmers. Farmers have faith in a trained CKW who also happens to be one of their own. During our follow-up visits (there were 3000 surveys and 100 follow-ups) we discovered that in all of the cases, at least some of the recommendations had already been adopted.

Who were the other players in this project?

The project was a collaborative effort involving the Grameen Foundation, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organization (NARO), MTN Public Access Uganda, AGCommons, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. IITA and NARO jointly trained the CKWs in disease identification and control techniques, conducted follow-up visits to take plant samples and carried out lab analysis of the samples to test the CKWs’ ability to accurately identify diseases. IITA also carried out scientific and geospatial analysis of the survey results.

Will the new grant from the Gates Foundation enable you to go back to those communities helped under the Quick Win Project and pickup where you left off?

We do have to look geographically at what our priority will be based on the partnerships that we’ve formed, but I’m sure we will continue working in those communities where we were piloting. However, we are also casting the net further afield now and hope to try and expand the network to 4000 CKWs and cover a large portion of the country over the next four years.

How sustainable is the CKW model in the long term?

There is sustainability at two different levels. There will be micro-entrepreneur opportunities for the CKWs, whereby they can take a loan out from an MFI (Microfinance Institution) to purchase a kit containing everything they need to carry out their work: a phone, a phone charging solution and possibly a bicycle, depending on their needs. There is a huge demand for data collection, with organizations, government agencies, and companies willing to spend money on sourcing data. CKWs can be trained to collect data at a much lower cost than that offered by existing data collection systems.

In terms of the organizational sustainability, we anticipate a demand for surveys, which would support the organization over time. As we exit at the end of the four-year grant period, I hope to see a self-sustaining organization in place that might become its own NGO in Uganda or be subsumed under a couple of their partners, who might take it up as part of their program.

What did you gain personally from this project?

I have gained a tremendous amount on a professional level. The project had so many different moving parts, and just by figuring out how those intersected, I have learned quite a bit about project management and was able to improve my analysis and strategy skills. It was also very rewarding to see CKWs, many of whom didn’t even know how to text on the phone and felt hesitant about their role as information resources when first recruited, grow over time and take great pride in the role they played in serving their communities and the passion with which many of them carried out their duties.

Looking ahead, what sort of role would you like to see this type of model playing in Uganda in the future?

I think there is great potential for the CKW model to completely transform the agricultural extension approach and framework, and not just in Uganda. The potential of mobile tools and the ease with which we can leverage those within the system set up and the work that it can create in developing countries is amazing. And these are tools that a lot of people already have in their hands. I see this model being adopted more broadly by the ministry or the government. At the same time, there is the potential to impact the agricultural sector much more broadly in terms of extension networks obtaining information about communities that are presently very disconnected: communities that don’t have the services they need, or a voice to talk about their challenges and experiences. The element of sustainability will also open up doors, not just within extension but also within the whole agricultural sector and really improve a number of points along the value chains.

AGCommons is an initiative implemented by the ICT-KM Program. Click here for our new AGCommons video.