3 Ways to Improve Farmer Information Systems

Farmer Information Systems have found solid footing in development, and are now fine-tuning their strategy and approach in communicating market prices, weather forecasts, and farming techniques. Yet participants at the recent ICTforAg conference spoke of the difficulties of trying to create better Farmer Information Systems to increase the value of their communications with farmers.
The three main takeaways were fundamentally linked to one another: farmers and their communities need to be consulted and engaged in the projects.
1. Involve Farmers in Program Design
Farmers need to be involved from the beginning of the project. While creating user profiles for the rural farmer can be a useful tool, it cannot be the only method for inclusion. Joint efforts of demographic studies and conversations with farmers can provide more success than assumption-based projects. Some projects ran into issues of low literacy rates in their target communities; one project overcame that issue by talking with farmers about how they would prefer to receive the information.
The farmers overwhelmingly asked for voice messages, specifically voice messages that were read in their own language preferably by someone from the community. Knowing that a local individual supported and understood the message helped the farmers to build trust with the program. ICT Ag program creators can do more not only by designing projects for farmer participants, but also by designing them with input from their farmer participants.
2. Collaborate Instead of Replicate
As organizations realize the successes and potential of ICT projects, more ventures are finding their way to the field. In order to best harness this potential and to make sure that the work is cohesive, Information Systems need to work within the context of their projects, meaning they need to determine what is being done, and then build off of those existing platforms.
New projects do not have to build their own systems when they already exist. Together, they can work towards finding more effective solutions. In some cases, it may be easier to build a customized system, but when all organizations do this, it creates fatigue. One audience member spoke of the exhaustion that project participants feel when it seems every new organization requires a new program, training and time to learn.
3. Engage at the Grassroots Level
We heard one individual who created his own system because, despite asking for feedback, support, and assistance, he was unable to get a larger organization to recognize his efforts. Instead of forcing grassroots efforts to strike out on their own, Farmer Information Systems need to be a strong foundation that grassroots efforts can turn to for support. Local organizations have a strong sense of the community constraints and strengths, which makes them key partners in building strong projects.
Additionally, the grassroots organizers can be valuable liaisons in building trust for a project. Panelists talked about program participants jumping from project to project trying to maximize benefits instead of building the type of strong relationships needed to see projects through to completion and, ultimately, to success. One solution is to find engaged community members who can help create projects in which individuals want to participate and improve. Providing a solid foundation of local participants and innovators will give projects the best chance of success.
As more organizations realize the significant benefits of Farmer Information Systems, it is critical for them to engage and to channel the needs and the opinions of the local participants in order to make the most of those benefits.
Cassiane Cladis is a Masters student at University of Colorado Boulder and an intern at FHI 360