Training Tanzanian Farmers Through Text Messaging
“In Tanzania, but also elsewhere in Africa, there is a focus on digital training of professionals—for example, we have online Crop Advisor Trainer programs for internal staff, government extension workers, NGOs, agro dealers, etc.
For farmers, we thought we had to reach them through physical contact like practical training and Field Days. Now we know that we can also reach them through SMS texting. We have not forgotten the farmers in this push to digital learning.”
– Epaphras Milambwe, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Tanzania & Technical Specialist for Africa
The East-West Seed Knowledge Transfer Foundation team in Tanzania has a new way to reach smallholder farmers. Through the Arifu learning platform, farmers are learning improved vegetable production techniques for five crops: tomato, sweet pepper, cabbage, watermelon, and cucumber. Each of the five courses is free to the farmers and is delivered by SMS text messaging—no smartphone or internet is required.
Using Technology to Reach All Farmers
EWS-KT has a multitude of digital resources for farmers, including an online learning hub, GrowHow; instructional videos on YouTube; and country-specific Facebook groups. But what about farmers who do not have a smartphone or access to the internet? Most smallholder farmers in Tanzania use a traditional cell phone rather than a smartphone. Are they to be left behind as more and more learning is delivered digitally?
The pilot program with Nairobi-based Arifu began in August 2021 and runs through October 2022. Each course covers vegetable production from land preparation to post-harvest handling for one of the five selected crops. The content was developed by the EWS-KT team in Tanzania with support from the global EWS-KT team, and each lesson consists of a series of short text messages (not more than 140 characters each!) in Swahili.
Farmers have been eager to sign up; the main challenge has been getting the registration process to work on all the different mobile phone networks. So far, 1,500 farmers have registered for Arifu, and about 70% of registrants have completed the course for at least one crop.
How the Arifu Platform Works
Registration is easy—farmers simply text “EWS” followed by the name of the crop they are interested in learning about. To learn about growing tomatoes (“nyanya” in Swahili), for instance, they text “EWSNYANYA” to 15443. They then receive a text message with instructions about what to do next (for example, “Reply ‘1’ to start the lesson”).
Each course is divided into lessons covering different parts of the production process. When farmers are ready to move to the next text message in the lesson, they reply to the first message with a particular letter or number. This is a flexible learning tool that farmers can complete at their convenience, and all of the lessons remain stored in their phones for easy reference at a later date.
Through the SMS texts, farmers come to understand proper land preparation methods, how to raise healthy seedlings, how to identify pests and diseases, safe use and handling of fertilizers and pesticides, general crop management, and proper harvesting and post-harvest handling.
The texts enable participating farmers to follow good agronomic practices step by step and to avoid common mistakes in vegetable production, increasing their yield and income.
Shown here are messages 4 to 6 of the 22 texts in the Crop Management lesson for tomato, with English translation.
At the end of each lesson, there is a short quiz, and then a longer quiz at the end of the entire course. After passing the end-of-course quiz, the farmer receives a link for a printable certificate, which they can ask an EWS-KT staff member to print for them.
Advantages of Arifu for Farmers
The EWS-KT Tanzania team has found that farmers are excited to start using Arifu. They are happy to be able to get useful information about vegetable production even when EWS-KT technical staff are not present. Farmers who have completed a course and received their certificate are pleased because they can follow the lessons to produce better vegetables.
The tomato course is the most popular choice, followed by sweet pepper. Most farmers grow more than one crop, so they may register for another course after finishing the first one. Arifu also makes it easier for farmers who want to start growing a different vegetable, as they are able to find out how to successfully plant, manage, and harvest the new crop.
The EWS-KT initiative with Arifu is designed not only to give an opportunity to farmers to learn on their own about vegetable production, but also to cement what farmers learn from EWS-KT staff. With the Arifu lessons on their phones, farmers have reference materials to refresh their memories. If they forget something from a training, they no longer have to call EWS-KT staff for help but instead have the information they need at their fingertips.
Reaching More Farmers Through Arifu
The Tanzania team publicizes the Arifu courses at Field Days, agricultural fairs, and whenever they meet with farmers. They explain how Arifu works, make sure the farmers know that it is free, and help them register for the course they are interested in. Farmers who have used the program also spread the word to other farmers, who register on their own.
The benefits of these courses are not limited to farmers directly reached by EWS-KT. Tanzania team members also publicize the Arifu SMS courses on their monthly radio show, which is heard by farmers well beyond the area in which EWS-KT works. In addition, the Tanzania team has produced flyers that contain all the information farmers need to register. They hand out the flyers to farmers, leave flyers with agro-input dealers for farmers to see, and even provide flyers to East-West Seed salespeople, who distribute them to farmers and agro-input dealers as they travel around the country.
These activities extend EWS-KT’s reach, and farmers all over the country have registered for the courses. Through these efforts, Arifu is making it possible to reach more farmers in areas where EWS-KT has no direct physical presence.
While youth are particularly excited about Arifu, farmers of all ages are appreciative of this EWS-KT initiative. Other stakeholders—universities, supply companies, agro-input dealers—are also impressed with this unique approach to training smallholder farmers, who often lack access to more common digital outreach methods like websites and cellphone apps.
EWS-KT implemented the Arifu initiative to give farmers the opportunity to learn improved techniques for vegetable production through SMS text messages using their ordinary phones, without the need for smartphones. A secondary goal of this inclusive learning program is to open the door for farmers to explore other ways to access information through their phones and to use digital tools to increase their knowledge and skills.
EWS-KT pilots various digital tools in different countries to provide inclusive access to knowledge for smallholder farmers. After each pilot, an evaluation is conducted to measure the effectiveness of the tool and its scalability. If the results are promising, EWS-KT looks at how to expand and adapt the program.
In the case of Arifu, the platform has different options to choose from, and EWS-KT may need to find partners to scale up the initiative within Tanzania and in other countries where EWS-KT operates.
Contact us to find out more about partnership opportunities!