For Ngunan Chiichii, a farmer in Benue State, north central Nigeria, cassava farming has become an exciting venture because even with her palasa phone (non-smartphone), she can now access improved agronomy recommendations in her palm, to control weeds and get better yield from her cassava farm.
Mrs Chiichii, a mother of 5, was among thousands of farmers that used to spend hundreds of hours annually stooping to control weeds using hoes and machetes on a hectare of cassava farm in Benue.
“At some point, I wanted to quit cassava cultivation, but on second thoughts, I decided to continue because it provides my family food, and I also make money from selling the stems,” she said recently.
Today, recommendations on cassava weed management and best planting practices developed by two projects at IITA—the Cassava Weed Management Project (CWMP) and the African Cassava Agronomy Initiative(ACAI), received via mobile phones have helped Mrs Chiichii and thousands of farmers to solve the problem of weeds and get better yield from cassava.
Across Nigeria, cassava is a major staple, contributing to food security, incomes, employment, and livelihoods. Despite the importance of cassava, growers are yet to maximize the benefit of the root crop because of poor yield per hectare. Efforts to intensify cassava production have been stymied by weed infestations and poor agronomy. The presence of weeds in cassava fields forces women such as Chiichii to spend hundreds of hours per annum to keep cassava farms weed free. Hoe weeding takes 50% to 80% of the total labor budget in Nigeria. In some cases, farmers pull out their children from school to support weeding.
In the last 5 years, CMWP and ACAI—both funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—assessed alternative approaches to managing weeds in cassava fields and best planting practices and recommended steps farmers can take to reduce the drudgery of hoe-weeding and improve their yields and profitability.
Findings of the research have been put in a compelling extension message (toolkit) known as the “Six Steps to Cassava Weed Management & Best Planting Practices toolkit” for dissemination to farmers at scale. The toolkit is a suite of recommendations integrating the use of herbicides and best-bet agronomic practices (improved variety, appropriate spacing, tillage, and fertilizer application) that when adopted by farmers, doubles their yield from the national average of 9 t/ha to more than 20 t/ha.
However, getting the recommendations across to farmers such as Chiichii was a big challenge because of the weak extension system in Nigeria (1 extension agent serving 4,000 farmers). Furthermore, the high cost of the training and visit extension approach was prohibitive and inefficient to deliver the recommendations at scale.
The digital approach to the rescue
To surmount the dissemination hurdles, CMWP and ACAI piloted a digital extension plan using interactive voice recording (IVR) of Viamo (also known as 3-2-1), combined with the use of radio, videos, and social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and LinkedIn) to get the recommendations on agronomy out to farmers.
Through this approach, farmers such as ChiiChii now get information on cassava cultivation by dialing 3-2-1 for free up to 10 times in a month. Another beauty of the 3-2-1 service is that it does not require smartphones. With an ordinary phone, farmers can dial and get the recommendations (information) in their dialect for free.
The use of digital extension tools by these projects is taking advantage of the mobile subscriber-base in Nigeria—mobile phone subscriptions are about 150 million, and 97.2 million persons use the Internet. In addition, the availability of cheap smartphones has given access to about 15 million persons on improved weed control practices and agronomy on platforms such as WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook.
By 2019, the digital plan had reached 220,000 farmers through various digital platforms, including Facebook, IVR, Twitter, SMS, Youtube, and WhatsApp. In addition, a radio program (Farming on Radio) was established with three local radio stations with a combined listenership of 2.9 million people.
Besides disseminating the agronomy recommendations, these projects have also developed a mobile phone app known as IITA Herbicides Calculator to empower farmers, extension service providers, and spray service providers on how to calibrate themselves and spray herbicides correctly without overspraying or underspraying.
Using this app, Chiichii has become more efficient on how to use herbicides without causing damage to the environment or humans. Hundreds of farmers and extension service providers have downloaded the app and are now using it on their farms.
The story is not different for farmer Chukwudi Obisike who is based in South East Nigeria. In addition to receiving advisory services via mobile, Obisike is using the IITA Herbicides Calculator to train farmers in his community on calibration and the right application of herbicides. He is also using the Six Steps to Cassava Weed Management & Best Planting Practices videos to grow his cassava and train other farmers.
While digital agriculture, as experienced by Chiichii and Obisike, provides opportunities for researchers to reach farmers at scale, it cannot happen in isolation. Traditional extension still has a role to play. Digital tools should be mainstreamed in both private and public extension systems. For instance, the use of videos was more effective when combined with the traditional extension system.
Secondly, awareness is still critical. For instance, in the beginning, the IVR using the 3-2-1 service of Viamo had low patronage. However, as it was combined with radio jingles, more users were attracted.
Lastly, data in Africa is relatively expensive, and coverage in some cases is limited. These undermine the effectiveness of the use of digital tools that are web-based or, in some cases, limit coverage and adoption.
Authors: Godwin Atser, Alfred Dixon, and Friday Ekeleme