Summary: Charles Levi is an iAGRI-sponsored master’s scholar in Agricultural Education and Extension at Makerere University in Uganda. A personal interest in communications technology led Charles to devise research that investigates the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as cellular phones, television, radio, and the internet amongst rural Tanzanian farmers to obtain and distribute agricultural knowledge. Charles hopes that his research can ultimately serve as a guide to aid extension personnel in how they can better design and implement extension programs and trainings that take advantage of the modern ICTs and improve Tanzania’ s food security by making farmers more productive.
Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.
Cultivating Airwaves: investigating the potential for information and communication technologies in distributing extension information in Tanzania
On a hot, dry and cloudless afternoon in late-March, the village of Ilonga Msalabani appears partially deserted. The residents who are not sweating beneath the sun as they toil in their smallholder maize plots are inside homes or have congregated in the welcoming shade of front porches and storefront eaves.
Despite the oppressive heat, Charles Levi, an iAGRI-sponsored Makerere University of Uganda master’s student, has assembled a focus group of eight smallholder farmers in front of one of the village’s homes. Though the group is small, it represents a cross-section of the village’s adult population, including three females, two seniors, a man who appears to be in his 20’s and a couple middle-aged men. They’re seated in the shade of a tree on chairs and a sofa that has been carried out from the nearest home.
Charles is interested in the forms of information and communications technology (ICTs) the farmers have access to and how they utilize that technology in their daily lives and farming practices. Halfway through the discussion, he splits the group into two, unrolls a tube of large white flip chart paper and hands a sheet to each group. Members of each group begin collaborating to draw diagrams and flow charts of how the major ICTs, such as TV, radio, and mobile technology, intersect with their lives. As they completed the activity, Charles moved between the groups observing their interaction.
“I’ve always liked teaching,” says Charles. “My interest was initially in the interaction with and the teaching of the farmers. I always thought that if I went into agriculture extension, I’d somehow be able to provide the instruction that could improve their lives.”
Charles, a former traveling salesman for a major fertilizer company, is thoroughly enjoying his discussion with the farmers of Ilonga Msalabani. During his years working in the private sector, he enjoyed providing farmers with the skills and knowledge they need to improve their productivity. Modern communications technology has long been of interest to Charles, particularly as an underutilized medium for agricultural instruction. He believes that for Tanzanian farmers to maximize their agricultural and economic potential, the practice of agricultural extension will need to employ ICTs to disseminate information more efficiently. Charles hopes that his research can inform and guide an agricultural ICT model in the near future.
Charles grew up in Morogoro, Tanzania and is one of six siblings whose father drove hospital staff and refugees at Morogoro’s Mazimbu camp for the United Nations. His mother was a housewife and smallholder farmer. Despite growing up on a small farm, Charles had little interest in agriculture as a boy.
“I didn’t do much farming with my mother,” recalls Charles. “I didn’t have an interest in farming when I was young, that came after I grew up. At that time, the only thing that I was interested in was playing football.”
When he wasn’t playing football, Charles studied and took to academics early in life. As a young student, he excelled at math and science, but he found geography particularly engaging because of one teacher who made the instruction interesting with story-telling.
“He would teach the subjects as if they were stories,” says Charles. “He was so good at it that it felt like you were at that place.”
Charles was fortunate to attend a selective national secondary school in Dar es Salaam, where he studied physics, chemistry and biology (PCB) in pursuit of admission to medical school. However, as is the case with many intelligent, motivated students in a country with only one medical school, Charles didn’t make the cut. In need of an alternative career, Charles fell back on an interest in teaching. He earned a teaching diploma in A level secondary school and applied to Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) to become an agricultural instructor.
Charles earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural extension and education from SUA in 2009 and went immediately to work in the private sector. He joined Minjingu Mines and Fertilizer Limited, where he had done his final undergraduate practical, as a sales and extension manager. Recently married and secure in his new job, Charles eagerly applied himself to his work. He relied heavily upon his ability to communicate with and instruct farmers – skills that would later be essential to his graduate research.
“My role was to teach the farmers and dealers about the proper usage of Minjingu organic phosphate,” says Charles. “I was also responsible for establishing relations and connections to expand our market. Some farmers were very resistant to utilizing fertilizers. I had to rely on all that I’d learned to convince them to use the product. I enjoyed the work, and I was working under minimal supervision and covering the entire region on my own. That experience taught me how to work independently because I had to design my own plan for how I could best serve the company and then go out and do it.”
After three years, Charles was comfortable in his occupation and very happy interacting with farmers on a daily basis, but he felt it was time to return to school and pursue an advanced degree.
“I had worked for three years,” recalls Charles. At that point I thought that it would be best if I got more education. I felt that a master’s degree could add value to what I was doing, so I looked toward returning to school.”
After learning that iAGRI was offering scholarships, Charles applied and was accepted. iAGRI offers its scholars a variety of opportunities, including the option to study at leading agricultural universities in the United States, Africa and India. Although the choice was welcome, it made the decision of where to study a difficult one for Charles and his family.
“I thought, why shouldn’t I go to the US, I would like it there,” says Charles. “Then I would consider my family and think that I should stay here instead. I decided to attend Makerere because it was abroad but it was still close to home, so I knew I’d be able to see my family often.”
While Charles’ decision to study in neighboring Uganda made cultural adjustment relatively easy, being away from his family proved more difficult than he’d imagined.
“In East Africa, I don’t think that the culture is very different from one country to another. I was comfortable at Makerere because of the similarities to Tanzania. Dealing with the family issues was the hardest part. My wife would call and tell me that our child was sick, and at those times it was not easy to be apart from them because you’d think that if you were there, maybe you could help.” Homesickness aside, Charles made the most of his time at Makerere and quickly selected his research topic: investigating how agricultural professionals might better utilize ICTs such as mobile phones, the internet, radio and even television.
Charles is quick to acknowledge the value of his advisor, Makerere University Professor Florence Kyazze, who kept him focused on his studies and taught him how to conduct his research.
“She was like my mother,” says Charles. “She would remind me that because people are supporting me financially, I have an obligation to do my research well and then take the knowledge I’ve gained into the community. She also taught me skills about how to conduct this research, such as how to communicate with local villages, as well as some skills for managing my data.”
The result of Charles’ year at Makerere – of hours of research, coursework and instruction from Dr. Kyazze – was a master’s research proposal to survey Tanzanian farmers about their use of ICTs in farming practices.
“My research looks at the effectiveness of ICTs in the dissemination of agricultural information,” explains Charles. “I’m trying to figure out a way that we can complement these ICTs so that the quality of information can be improved. I also want to establish what the farmer’s impressions of ICTs and agricultural information are. The research should allow extension professionals to understand the importance and usefulness of ICTs for extension services.”
To accomplish this, Charles has been traveling to rural villages in Tanzania’s Kilosa district, interviewing agricultural extension stakeholders and conducting focus groups, such as the one he’s administering on this particular afternoon in late March.
“I administer questionnaires to individual farmers, extension staff, ICT providers, officials with NGO’s and all others that are involved in ICTs,” says Charles. “For example, I’ll ask them how often they receive agricultural information through ICTs. I might ask them what forms of ICTs they have access to, or which they prefer. I’ll ask them if the information they get is sufficient and, if it is not, what kind of information they would want.”
For example, Charles believes that farmers could enhance their profitability by using ICTs to access updated information on markets and prices, thereby empowering smallholder farmers to bypass the middlemen.
“Market price trends could be distributed through ICTs,” claims Charles. “Securing markets is difficult because farmers don’t know where the best markets are and they must sell low to middlemen. Middlemen are the ones that dominate the markets, but by farmers being able to access updated market information, they would have the same knowledge of markets and commodity values.”
Charles’ research objectives are two-fold and reinforce one another. He hopes his research will both enable extension personnel to improve agricultural training and information and increase farmers’ use of that training information.
“I want this research to influence people to use ICTs to gain agricultural information,” says Charles. “Right now, most of the farmers depend on extension officers. The population is increasing but the number of extension agents is not. So, I want those officers to utilize these ICTs but I also want the farmers to use the technology to get that information.”
There are precedents for such agricultural programming in Tanzania. Already agriculture news is circulated to some extent by almost all the major forms of ICT. However, the most common method is mobile phone technology, which is still underutilized by most smallholder farmers.
“Most of these farmers use radio and some TV as well,” explains Charles. “That is why it is important to expand such programming beyond mobile applications to more traditional forms of these technologies.”
Beyond allowing him to receive world-class academic training and experience at Makerere University, iAGRI has prepared Charles to be a thought leader in Tanzanian agriculture.
“Graduate studies require a lot of resources,” acknowledges Charles. “Traveling to villages, interviewing farmers and people who work in ICTs – it all costs money, and iAGRI has funded that. The trainings they’ve provided have also been critical to my development as a researcher. I’ve learned so many skills that I can apply to my data collection, management and analysis because of them.”
The individual interviews and focus group that Charles is overseeing this afternoon represent some of the final data he needs before he can begin his analysis and hopefully draw conclusions regarding the utility and potential of ICT use within Tanzania’s smallholder farming community. He’s not yet certain what he’ll find, but he’s confident that his research will reveal an audience of eager farmers willing to gain from ICT use and a relative void of programming that extension agents should fill in order to help Tanzanian agriculture producers maximize their potential.
“We’ll need to make proper use of these ICTs,” says Charles. “We’ll need to make sure that the critical information that farmers need flows from the most contemporary research, to the agricultural extension agents, then directly to the farmer themselves. If the farmers and anybody else in agriculture can make better use of ICTs, they’ll find that it will benefit their lives.”
If you would like additional information on Charles Levi’s research or the opportunity to sponsor his research further, please contact us.
All images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.