Farming on mobile phones in rural Uganda

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If one would borrow the term, the use of ICT has gone into overdrive, as a good number of innovations cementing real concrete results begin manifesting themselves.

Although the ground is still the bottom line and the sky the limit, the use of mobile phones has reinforced initiatives in areas that were particularly averse to the use of any modern ICT as one of the ways of getting the much needed information.

One of such initiatives is the CELAC (Collecting and Exchanging Local Agricultural Content) project that is beginning to create impact among farmers in the seven or so districts of rural Uganda where the project has its presence. With this project, Ugandan farmers are leapfrogging from their conventional methods to methods that incorporate ICTs as major tools in development.

Far away from being looked at as luxurious gadgets that diminish people’s incomes, the project has come up with innovations that have placed mobile phones as one of the major tools for community mobilisation and dissemination.

With this kind of technology, timely dissemination and response has become the culture. As farmers yearn for information, the CELAC project provides it in equal or more proportions. Owing to this fact, CELAC has earned itself praise. The project has remarkably connected farmers and also helped them in what farmers refer to as digging on the phone.

Every week farmers receive and send vital information within their network and other networks affiliated to them. WOUGNET (Women of Uganda Network) for example, picks up this information, translates it into local languages especially for farmers based in northern Uganda. This kind of interaction in a way reinforces collaboration.

Using SMS (short message services) as a method of dissemination is not far fetched ever since telecom organisations started extending their services to rural areas. But also, in the past, farmers in rural Uganda heavily relied on agricultural extension workers for any support regarding their livestock or crops. Disappointingly, this kind of support was always long in coming due to lack of accessible roads, electronic networks and other logistical constraints. By the time any support came through, dire resultant effects due to lack of quick response usually left farmers in despicable situations with no recourse whatsoever.

Community radios that would have helped to bridge the vacuum, also suffered from coverage problems and to say the least, they were what one would refer to as one way vectors that offered no mechanism of feedback from farmers.

Today, the CELAC project fills the gap and does much more than offering the How to Guide but also goes a long way in collecting and documenting local agricultural content that is more relevant to farmers. Although a great percentage of this information is anchored on their website – www.celac.or.ug and some of it sent to farmers via SMS, by the time Uganda Communications Commission makes their presence felt through Internet POPs, the CELAC project will have gone some great distance in transforming farmers into an information community.

Besides farmers, CELAC also engages former agricultural extension workers as knowledge brokers to help in the collection and dissemination of traditional methods that work. Each week they meet to update themselves and to verify some information they might have gathered within the week so as to pass it onto another circle beyond their geographical area of jurisdiction. As this information is shared, they also expect to learn from other members who belong to the CELAC family in other districts.

The climax of this sharing is the annual Knowledge Fair where those engaged in the CELAC project congregate to share indigenous knowledge through exhibitions, newsletter, brochure, discussion forum etc.

Last year, although the Knowledge Fair was skipped, it will be held this year and the most remarkable thing is that one of the telecommunications organisations has picked interest in sponsoring it.

This value addition has created the urge and the relevance of using mobile phones as the quickest methods of receiving and disseminating information. As the social and economic networks get strengthened, telecommunications organisations have also realised the viability of the rural market and therefore willing to extend any support besides the service.

[Posted by Abubaker Basajjabaka on Friday, March 2. 2007]