An Integrated ICT Approach to Solve Agriculture Challenges in Bangladesh

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In last two and a half years mPower Social Enterprises Ltd has been working with Dhaka Ahsania Mission and Care Bangladesh to implement an USAID awarded five years ‘Ag Extension Project’ which aims to strengthen the agriculture extension system of Bangladesh.

Being a technical partner of this project, mPower is focusing on some of the key challenges in the present agricultural eco-system and trying to develop some integrated ICT based solution to cater these challenges.

Challenges in present Ag Ecosystem of Bangladesh

  1. Limited access to extension agent: One of the primary challenges of the agricultural ecosystem in Bangladesh is the absence or limited presence of expert consultation in rural vicinities. Although there are almost 14 000 government field extension officers, each extension agent has to assist more than 2 000 farm families in his area. Given the working hours, the logistical constrains, the geographical context and the available resources, it’s a mammoth task for each extension agent to provide adequate support to all the assigned farmers. As a result, farmers are forced to take advice from people who are not experts and are prone to be misled or exploited, which hampers the overall productivity of the country and negatively affects farmers’ livelihoods. In addition, female farmers are often left out of the traditional extension system: because of gender barriers, many times female farmers do not interact with male extension agent.
  2. The challenge of keeping up-to-date the Knowledge base of extension agents: Like many other domains, agricultural knowledge becomes outdated quite qulckly and it is often hard to regularly train extension agents working in the field with up-to-date information. Moreover, currently there is no specific mechanism in place to regularly train extension agents after a certain interval in a proper learning environment. In addition, in the field extension agents are not equipped with any sort of tool or materials that can be used to improve their service delivery.
  3. Decision-makers have limited tools to collect real time information from the field when taking timely decisions: Extension agents in the field collect and prepare a massive amount of ground level data, such as crop statistics and visit log, which is vital for managers and decision makers in order to plan future activities. Currently data collection is done through a traditional paper-based system, and therefore aggregating all the data collected requires a big amount of staff time. Hence, when it comes to management level, which is far from the ground, it often takes more than fifteen days to elaborate data from the fields, and this means that decision makers have very little time to send out meaningful and effective instructions in emergency situations such as floods and other natural hazards.

To solve these three specific issue, mPower has developed in integrated ICT approach which includes a big amount of mobile and web apps, multimedia content for mobile phones, and even community radio programs.

To solve the very first issue, the lack of extension agents, mPower has developed a community based, infomediary driven approach.

In each of the farmer group, the community selects an ‘ICT Leader’, a member of their community who owns a smartphone. These ICT leaders are trained by the project and they are provided with a mobile application named ‘Farmer Query System’.

When farmers in the community face a particular agriculture challenge, through this app the ICT Leaders send the details of this problem to a call center where expert agriculturists respond to the query through a phone call, becoming a virtual extension agent. Currently the infomediary are not paid by the project and not given any phones. The social incentive of using this system to solve other farmer’s problem actually motivates them to do this work.

Though, we are also trying out various revenue models so to give as well a financial incentive to the infomediary. Moreover, female farmers are also more prone to get reliable and certified agricultural information as the person who is sending the query on her behalf is community member himself.

Agriculture Knowledge Bank, an online repository of agricultural content which can also be accessed through mobile app, has been developed in collaboration with various government research institutes and extension department of Bangladesh in order to solve the challenge of updating the extension agent with most recent knowledge.

Many research agencies in Bangladesh produce a lot of content which is stored in their own website. Existing rural telecenters, innovative farmers or extension agent who tries to use ICT or mobile web to extract information from web, often face a hard time because for a single piece of information they often have to roam through multiple government websites. Hence this knowledge portal, which is also linked with learning tools and powers the various diagnostic tool, aids extension agents to learn more about each of the topics with updated information.

To automate the reporting and data collection process of extension department which is challenge three, mPower, in collaboration with extension department of Bangladesh, has developed three mobile application which automate their scheduling process, statistics collection and problem tracking, with the positive result of eliminating a lot of paperwork.

This data are being automatically aggregated in real time, and managers sitting remotely can see the view in a web dashboard and can give timely and meaningful forward instructions.

Results and Learning

  • Up to these point, so far 93 users are using these applications and so far 4 970 agro advisory service are being provided.
  • Farmers are in general very receptive to the recommendations they have been getting from this ICT based system. So far 96.4% of farmers responded that they are happy with the recommendations received, and they have applied practices . To find out adoption and impact more, mPower is working with a team of researchers from iCHASS,
  • So far 10.04% female farmers got agro recommendation through this systems which is a vast number, considering in traditional system the number is very poor
  • Some of the e-Administrative application which are targeted to government extension agent are yet to show significant impact as it’s tough to train field extension officers with a new ICT based tool and replace the old paper based method
  • Finding out female infomediary seems to be a challenge due to gender barrier and project is working with INGENAES to develop a strategy to tackle this issue
  • Involving community people increases ‘trust’ of the recommendation
  • Apart from social value, to find out sustainability some revenue based model is required for the infomediary

Thank you for taking some time to read through this blog post. Please feel free to share and circulate this message. We look forward to hear your feedback and comments!

Sadman Sadek currently working with mPower Social Enterprises Ltd. as Technical Coordinator in Bangladesh



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