‘Question Box’ answering the call to better agriculture for farmers

Dec 13th, 2009 | By | Category: Student Work

With new seeds being made for farmers in Africa, new methods of farming being promoted and linking farming to markets being emphasized, the need for farmers to have appropriate information on seeds, practices and market prices has been highlighted as a key intervention in improving agricultural productivity and helping empower especially small holder farmers.

Question Box operators in Uganda taking questions from farmers.

Question Box operators in Uganda taking questions from farmers. (Photo courtesy of Grameen Foundation via flickr)

A number of studies and funding have in recent years been dedicated to develop mechanisms through which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) like mobile phones, Internet (e-mail and Web sites), radios, printed media forms and video among others can be used to improve farmers’ access to information relevant to farming and improving their livelihoods. Question Box is one of the latest initiatives that is being fronted as effective in helping farmers access the information they need. The initiative involves setting up “question boxes” where farmers can ask questions on any issue and get answers.

Gerald Businge interviewed Rose Shuman, the founder and CEO of Question Box on how this initiative is different from other initiatives and why it is important to agricultural development.

Q. What is Question Box all about?

Question Box is a project of Open Mind, a nonprofit corporation headquartered in Santa Monica, California, USA. Question Box is an information service we are undertaking in Uganda and India. The core of our service is live, local language information. In Uganda, 40 community knowledge workers are being utilized to promote our service, person-to-person in rural areas. In India, we are delivering information via our signature Question Boxes.

Q. What exactly is the Question Box and how is it related to giving information to farmers?

The Question Box is a simple telephone intercom through which we connect farmers to our live Internet information service. It requires no literacy or computer skills. Users place a free call by pushing the green button on the question Box. They connect to an Operator sitting in front of a computer with internet access. Users ask the operator questions in their local language. The operator goes online and finds their answers, translating English results into the local language and relay the information back to the farmers. It enables farmers to get the information they need and boost their farming.

Q. How is information accessed by farmers important in agricultural development?

Many farmers today need to be knowledgeable on many things, including soil, plant cycles and different types of farming practices. Farmers need information to make the right decisions. But many farmers normally lack the information they need to improve their farming.

Q. How is Question Box helping farmers to access information they need in ways different than what is currently being done?

In our experience, farmers in most developing countries lack literacy skills. Extension workers through which most farmers are supposed to receive information and guidance on farming are few, and it is very expensive to provide agriculture extension workers for every village. Some programs have focused on providing information to farmers in ways that require reading, including information provided on the internet. But the majority of farmers are only comfortable with talking and listening. So instead of teaching farmers to read and write in order to benefit from the wealth of information available and accessible through the internet, we said why can’t we enable farmers to access information they need, through talking and listening. With the advent of mobiles phones which are widespread in much of developing countries like Uganda, it is now possible to reach many farmers with the specific information they need.

Q. What technologies were there that Question Box is building on to help farmers access information they need to improve their agriculture?

There are a number of them. Internet sites providing updates and information for particular farmers. There is Google SMS, where farmers can sms a question and get back an answer of the best guess the search engine generates. In India, there are ICT centers where farmers can leave a video question and come back later to get a video answer to their questions. There are quite a number of ICT led initiatives targeted at farmers.

Q. So why then is Question Box important if other technologies are already helping avail relevant information to farmers?

Our observation is that the internet has brought so much information and opportunities for sharing information to the world, but still the world’s four (4) billion people who have never been online are not accessing this wealth of information. They have no access to the internet and might not have access since most of the adults undertaking farming find it hard to learn new things. So why not bring the internet to the farmers through the mobiles phone which is already easily accessible. Researchers have shown that there is a mobile phone in every village, and everyone has a friend or relative with a mobile phone, or at least they know someone with a mobile phone who can help a farmer to use the phone to ask a question and get an answer.

Because of low population density in Uganda’s villages to optimally use Question Boxes, we decided to use mobile phones though Grameen Foundation’s Applab community knowledge workers who are trained and equipped with mobile phones, they are sent to the communities and they go around so that local farmers can ask questions to our operating centre where our staff search for answers from our online database and relay back the information to the farmer. In Uganda, this is currently being done in Mbale and Bushenyi as a pilot.

Q. What inspired you to start Question Box?

Question Box as a technology and initiative is very flexible, allowing farmers to get information they need. Farmers ask and get information they need. It is important to have a gadget or system out there where people can ask and get the important information they need. For me, it is bringing the promise of the internet closer to the poorest people, by letting them also get the information that they need when they need it.

Q. What kind of questions do people ask when they call in?

Banana wilt disease, best ways to plant coffee, cattle and animal diseases, planting practices and many questions, some not related to farming. One important lesson we have learned is that there is a great need for health care information. Many people call in and ask health-related questions, but we don’t have funding for a health care expert. Because the way we work is that we partner with some agricultural experts, who are on call to answer some of the questions asked by farmers. In Uganda, we are working the National Agriculture Research Organization. In case we don’t have the information the farmer wants in the database, we send the question to the agriculture expert in that field, who answers back in at most a day and we relay the answer to the farmer. We also add such new information to our database so that other farmers can access it if they need it.

We are hoping some stakeholders in healthcare can join us in this initiative so that we provide both agriculture and healthcare information. We know from the pilot that if you care about farmers, you have to care about their health. Health has a lot of implications for farming to succeed. When they get sick, farmers cannot farm. A lot of farmers also spend scarce money on treatment they are not sure about.

Q. What in your experience are the most types of information that farmers want?

Farmers mostly want to know about market prices and extension experts’ help. Question Box wants to help as many farmers access this information without expecting extension workers to visit every village. Farmers are able to access the information they need quicker and at less cost. This is about being practical to the realities on the ground. If you want farmers to access any information today, the best choice is to talk to them on the phone.

Q. What role does information play agricultural development and ensuring food security?

Anything that helps farmers safeguard their crops will promote yields and help food security. Even though pesticides or technologies might exist, timely information is an important step to secure crops from diseases; knowing the best market for one’s produce is important to the farmer earning income. Information is very important to successful farming.

Q. So where do you think Question Box will be in the long term, in terms of helping farmers?

It depends on the help and partnerships we get. Our pilot projects in India and Uganda have demonstrated that Question Box does increase access to information that farmers want, and not what you think they want. Farmers normally need information and they need it right away. Many cannot read or write, so sms approaches might not be helpful to all. The farmers need to be enable to call and ask, and they are given the information they want and when they want it. We are currently seeking funding to expand this tool to improve lives of farmers who need information and are currently difficult to access. We are ready to work with all those targeting rural people so that information can reach the rural people in ways that are relevant with their situations. We want to see people enabled to call for free on the Question box or through the mobile phones or community knowledge workers to get answers to their questions.

There are a number of people and projects already collecting information for farmers benefit and we are building on their efforts by making it easy for farmers to get the information.

Q. Any more information on Question Box that you want readers to be aware of?

While this is called Question Box, we have developed a package of of tools beyond the physical Question Box. With the help of Applab, we have developed a software that can help you set up a call center in your office or any location, search you databases and search the internet for any information that is required by the users of the call center. We want to make this software available to whoever wants it by mid-November 2009. It is free source software for anyone in the world. We are looking at integrating sms in the system, but emphasizing calls by farmers to ask the questions for the answers they want. This software and model can work for all types of information by enabling you provide rural people the information that they need. It is better to let every individual ask the information they want instead of always pretending we know what they want.

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