Welcome to 21st century R4D: SMS extension in Africa

Research for development (R4D) is an essential task for agricultural scientists. Our skills and knowledge have the potential to end malnutrition and hunger, while also lifting billions of people out of poverty. But the obstacles are enormous. The biophysical challenges of managing a given crop in a given agroecology (e.g. identifying planting dates, plant arrangement, crop variety selection, etc) seem daunting enough. But we also must contend with the socioeconomic and cultural contexts of the communities we engage (e.g. individual priorities, family needs, labour constraints, etc). Even once these have been negotiated and we have found suitable interventions, communicating these options in a timely fashion to rural communities in low income countries remains a logistical nightmare.

Enter the digital revolution...

While the digital divide between low and high income countries continues, mobile phone technology has been almost universally adopted in many African countries. This means mass communication with many communities previously off-grid can now occur. Studies by Pew International have shown that text messaging (SMS) is by far the most common use of mobile phones in Africa. This presents exciting opportunities for rural agricultural extension.

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We now live in an era of international development when mobile technology is ubiquitous. The challenge for agricultural researchers and institutions is to effectively utilise this technology to share our knowledge and information. As a response, the QAAFI Farming Systems Group through the SIMLESA project (Sustainable Intensification of Maize and Legume systems for food security in Eastern and Southern Africa) has created the SIMLESA-SMS platform.

This SMS platform has provided a means for sharing project findings with thousands of farmers across five countries in a both a targeted and timely manner. Messages can be sent to specific communities, states or provinces within countries. Information includes advising on local rainfall forecasts, best practice agronomy, input recommendations and market information. It is hoped that this will allow lessons from SIMLESA to be better implemented. We will also ensure the platform provides a longer-term communication and extension tool for communities by ensuring handover to local institutions and NGOs partnered with SIMLESA at the conclusion of the project.

Caspar Roxburgh is a former PhD student and current research officer on the SIMLESA project working with QAAFI's Farming Systems Research group. Email: c.roxburgh@uq.edu.au

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