Local knowledge hubs and mobile phone technology deliver timely information to farmers
By Nancy D. Lamontagne
For the past four years, the ClimaAdapt project, led by Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), has provided farmers in India with agricultural information that can help them better adapt to the effects of climate change. The program uses a unique mixture of information hubs known as Village Knowledge Centers and mobile phone technology to provide farmers with information they need. This model was developed by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, one of the ClimaAdapt project partners.
Effects of climate change on agriculture
Climate change can have significant impacts on agricultural production because it brings unpredictable and extreme weather patterns that delay crop sowing, introduce new pests and diseases, and cause damage due to droughts or flooding. Since 2012, the ClimaAdapt project has focused on bringing up-to-date information to farmers in the three Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, which are already experiencing some of the effects of climate change.
“The project areas are impacted by scarcity of water and also with variability in the monsoon pattern,” said Udaya Sekhar Nagothu, the Program Coordinator for ClimaAdapt. “If the monsoon is delayed, then sowing of crops gets delayed. Crops are also affected if the rainfall distribution is not even within a particular season.”
NIBIO, together with other Indian partners, has been working in these Indian states for a decade. Researchers noticed that conventional agricultural extension services were not effective at providing information to farmers. They needed a new approach to get valuable climate and agricultural information to the farmers on the ground.
“Conventionally, scientific information is developed in labs and provided to farmers via the state extension services, and often this may not be based on local or farmer needs,” Nagothu said. “Instead, we discuss necessities with farmers, and based on their demand, provide timely information. This need-based information flow is not only useful to address the problems they face but also helps build the farmers’ overall knowledge base.”
Bringing information closer to farmers
The ClimaAdapt project established eight pilot Village Knowledge Centers in the three Indian provinces to act as information hubs. These centers offer places for farmers to connect with other farmers and to interact with scientists and technical experts associated with the project.
Farmers who are members of the local Village Knowledge Centers receive regular text messages containing information related to farming practices, soil management, planting, crop management, weather, agricultural markets and other topics. Since many farmers now have mobile phones, these texts offer an inexpensive way to transfer information in a timely manner.
“Information for farmers is quite crucial, and providing them with timely and correct information is very important to address some of the challenges from climate change,” Nagothu said. “These Village Knowledge Centers are important models for bringing information closer to the farmers in a more efficient way.”
To help build trust with the farmers, the project uses people from the village as knowledge workers in the Village Knowledge Centers. These workers coordinate meetings, encourage village people to use the center facilities, and send information developed by scientists to the several thousand local farmers connected to the centers.
Before each cropping season, the Village Knowledge Centers invite farmers to attend an orientation program that reviews topics tied to crop sowing such as soil management and purchasing the best seeds. During the growing season, farmers receive information on weeding, irrigation and pesticide application, and other relevant topics.
The centers also hold plant clinics that give farmers the opportunity to get help from experts in identifying and treating pests and diseases affecting their crops. Video conferencing equipment at the Village Knowledge Centers offer a way for farmers to speak with other farmers or scientists located at other sites.
Using mobile phone technology helps the centers connect with farmers living in remote places. For example, one farmer who lives far away from the Village Knowledge Center used his mobile phone to send a photograph and a message to the center asking for advice on a disease affecting his livestock. A quick response from the center with information on how to treat the disease helped him to save the livestock.
Mobile technology is also allowing more women to access the farming information. Of the roughly 25,000 farmers accessing information through the eight Village Knowledge Centers, around a third are women. “One of our studies showed that 30 to 50 percent of the farming activity in these areas are managed by women, but traditional extension services were reaching mostly men,” Nagothu said. “We are seeing more men migrating to the cities while women are becoming more involved in agriculture, so they are an important target for the project.”
Making the project sustainable
With funding for the ClimaAdapt project ending in 2017, the project leaders are examining ways to keep the Village Knowledge Centers sustainable and operating in the future.
“We have been asking the farmers to take over the maintenance of centers and have received some positive responses,” Nagothu said. “Farmers have also expressed a willingness to pay yearly membership fees to belong to a center, which would help cover some of the expenses.” The project team is also in discussions with government agencies in these areas regarding the possibility of the agencies taking over operation of some of the centers.
The project leaders are developing a model that could be used to create similar Village Knowledge Centers in other areas of the country. They are also developing a business model that could help make such a system of information flow financially sustainable.
The ClimaAdapt project is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway, through the Royal Norwegian Embassy, New Delhi. In addition to NIBIO, partners in the project include the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, The International Water Management Institute, The Water and Land Management and Training Institute, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the Irrigation Management and Training Institute.
Nancy D. Lamontagne is a freelance science communicator and a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.