I am in full accord with the advocates for enhancing the farmer’s voice. But I have to ask the question “And then what?” There will be little point in giving the farmers voice if there is no one ready to listen and respond. I agree with the argument that we must move from being technology driven and simply seeking uses for new information technology to becoming farmer centric. However, I am not convinced that we, including myself, fully understand what that implies.
Empowerment is synonymous with becoming knowledge-able and there are a lot of dedicated people doing good pioneering work in finding ways by which farmers can become be provided with both the information and the learning tools they need to form new knowledge appropriate to their unique situations. Some significant successes can be found in the South Asian and African partnerships of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) in promoting rural lifelong learning. Amongst the many others interesting approaches are the new concepts supported by the WK Kellogg and Bill Melinda Gates Foundations for barefoot universities and learning circles.
If these efforts are successful there will be growing numbers of farmers hungry to learn and who will be equipped with the physical and intellectual tools they need to utilise new information to build on their own funds of knowledge. Supposing that succeeds, as it must, where would they go to for the specific tailored information that they would want? Africa’s extension services are not well equipped or trained to deal with the many and highly varied questions that the farmers would ask by SMS, e-mail, MP3 players etc. The agricultural research institutes and the universities do not have the necessary linkages with rural communities, the agricultural research systems, or the staff incentive to respond on a daily basis to farmers’ questions.
The vision is beginning to clear of an interconnected agricultural knowledge system linking farmers (at rural learning communities, barefoot universities, learning circles, and farmer learning groups etc.) to agricultural information providers which are themselves interconnected so that the farmers will not get advice from whomever they happen to be connected to but from the person best qualified to answer.
The different components such as rural learning facilities, technology mediated distance education (TechMODE), open access training resources, training of facilitators to promote learning, automated FAQs, quality assurance systems, etc. are being advanced.
However, is sufficient thought being given to how it will all be brought together and to the reform and change management needed to develop the new mind sets and the very different incentives that will have to be devised to get all the actors involved in this 21st century way of empowering farmers to drive agricultural and rural development.