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Using digital extension services amid Covid-19

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BY PAULINE MBUKWA:

ACKNOWLEDGES COVID-19 THREAT—Kuwali

The Covid-19 pandemic affected all sectors of the economy including agricultural extension services, whose nature of work requires face-to-face training and field day demonstrations.

This year, some major annual events like the National Agriculture Fair were not held but the pandemic also presented an opportunity for stakeholders to be creative in terms of reaching out to farmers.

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Civil Society Agriculture Network National Director Pamela Kuwali says the pandemic posed a threat to agricultural extension services as both farmers and extension workers were restricted from interacting freely.

This, in turn, diminished farmers access to extension services.

“This calls for embracing alternative ways of transferring information about improved agricultural technologies to smallholder farmers,” Kuwali says.

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Most organisations turned to digital platforms when they failed to physically meet farmers.

Plan International Malawi Development Facilitator Blessings Nyirenda created a WhatsApp group with 113 farmers in Mzimba with the purpose of enabling exchange of knowledge and information-sharing among smallholder farmers and extension staff.

Through the group, the farmers share pictures and videos of various themes they learnt at farmer field schools. The farmers also have a chance to ask questions on issues they do not understand.

“The WhatsApp group is making my work easy as I am able to reach many farmers easily and to respond to any issues that they may have related to their farming,” says Mica Chavula, Master Trainer (Agriculture Extension Development Officer) for Chikangawa Extension Planning Area in Mzimba South.

Commercial Agriculture Support Services Coordinator Charles Govati says digital extension can work in Malawi if the country invests in the necessary ICT infrastructure including rural electrification.

The mindset change is also necessary to catalyse adoption and acceptance of digital channels as authentic sources for agriculture advisory messages, Govati says.

“There is also need to activate the mind on how to screen fake and misleading messages by increasing their ability to identify authentic sources of digital information,” he cautions.

Director of the Department of Agriculture Extension Services Jerome Nkhoma says his department is using e-extension to reach out to farmers.

The department is working with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Farm Radio Trust and other development partners in disseminating agricultural advisories through radio.

Apart from using radio, the department is also using mobile-based platforms to reach out to over 40,000 farmers with information on production, market, nutrition and Covid-19 messages.

“Our goal is to ensure there is continuity in production and marketing of agriculture commodities in the midst of the pandemic,” Nkhoma says.

It is factual that Malawi continues to face challenges in access and usage of ICT digital tools such as smartphones, which would enable farmers to access digital applications.

The 2015 National Statistical Office ICT access survey report showed that 36 percent of Malawi’s population had access to a mobile phone and the proportion of those in rural areas was lower, at 30.2 percent.

Apart from access, poor internet connectivity and the cost of internet are some of the problems that affect usage of digital platforms.

“To address these challenges, there is need to invest in ICT infrastructure in the country. Capacity-building of end-users also becomes critical as the digital tools require skills,” says George Goliati, founder of Midule Farmers organisation based in Blantyre.

Recently, the government, through the Ministry of Information, reviewed the 2013 Malawi ICT Policy which aims at, among other things, addressing ICT gaps such as access, and connection, to services.

There is hope that digital extension services will be utilised to the fullest potential if the government improves the status of ICT infrastructure.

The use of digital extension services is billed to improve access to extension services and markets if existing challenges such as access to digital tools and low literacy levels among the rural communities are addressed.

Covid-19 has, somehow, provided stakeholders with an opportunity to re-think communication approaches.

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