Deploying digital tools for agricultural extension support amid COVID-19

With the necessary safety considerations of COVID-19, support for smallholder farmers and workers is both more important, and more difficult, than ever. Solidaridad is staying engaged with smallholders through innovative digital tools.

Photos add personalization and richness to digital tools

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage economies, its toll on agriculture has not been fully reckoned. The restrictions on movement and the limited social interactions will strain livelihoods and the agricultural supply chain as access to inputs and extension support services by the already vulnerable farmers and their communities is interrupted.

Using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) platform, Solidaridad, an international civil society organization, is increasing access to agronomic and other production support information by farmers and communities that produce cocoa, oil palm and other food staples. The platform is compatible with basic feature- and android phones. It allows the target audiences to receive pre-recorded messages in real time. It is an important part of a remote support approach that helps Solidaridad to quickly assess ground situations to generate response plans and interventions.

“At this time when physical interactions are less desired, the IVR platform helps us to reach out to a large number of our programme beneficiaries quickly to share important information on COVID-19 protection protocols and to deliver other technical crop production content that aligns with the farming season and the cropping calendar”, says Isaac Gyamfi, Regional Director for Solidaridad in West Africa. 

Experience using digital tools in virtual training of farmers

The Interactive Voice Response platform and other digital tools are not new to Solidaridad. In West Africa, they have been applied in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, where Solidaridad is promoting sustainable practices across the cocoa, gold and oil palm supply chains.

In 2019, the organization used the IVR platform to transmit messages on Good Agricultural Practices to over 40,000 farmers, workers and producers under the Next Generation Cocoa Youth Programme (MASO) — funded by the Mastercard Foundation, and the second phase of the Cocoa Rehabilitation and Intensification Programme (CORIP II) — funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Ghana.

Varying types of tools ensure more farmers can engage with content, even on simple feature-phones

Solidaridad also deployed mobile data collection tools to profile 60,068 cocoa farmers, 19,627 oil palm farmers and 1,056 miners in the operational countries. The data is used to support the creation of markets for potential small and medium enterprises. It also serves as a baseline for current and future programmes whose impacts and outcomes would be tracked using the Interactive Voice Response platform.

“The IVR platform provides Solidaridad and partners real-time feedback on farmers' experiences, learning and practices for additional intervention where necessary,” says Ahmed Abdul Basit, Head of Digital Solutions at Solidaridad West Africa. 

With over 60,000 cocoa farmers already subscribing to the voice application platform, Solidaridad has maintained contact with project beneficiaries during the pandemic. A total of 39,000 farmers are using the platform” – Ahmed Abdul Basit

Stepping up COVID-19 awareness in local communities

Since March 2020, Solidaridad has used the IVR platform to sensitize 28,557 beneficiaries on the need to practice social distancing and other precautionary measures to prevent infection and contain the spread of the virus. In Ghana, the awareness campaign messages, which were culled from national directives and the World Health Organization guidelines, were translated into Twi, a local language spoken by many of the communities where Solidaridad currently operates.

In Sierra Leone, Solidaridad is supporting the government to step up public awareness on COVID-19. In partnership with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, through its District Health Management Teams, Solidaridad has supported the production of relevant information, education, and communication materials for dissemination to over 20,000 farmers in 300 local communities in the country.

Through its Gold programme in Ghana, the organization has also embarked on a sensitization campaign to educate eight Village Savings and Loans Associations, six project mines and mining communities on measures to control the spread of the virus. 

Other digital tools for sustainability

The organization will continue to innovate in the use of a digital classroom and other virtual tools to train small and medium enterprises and other community facilitators who are engaged for data collection. In this effort, Solidaridad welcomes partnerships with development investors and foundations, as well as government ministries, departments and agencies to scale the use of digital innovations in support of vulnerable producers and enterprises to grow as the world adapts to the new reality of physical distancing.

Additionally, the organization is fast-tracking the development of a digital self-assessment tool for artisanal and small-scale gold miners to educate them on responsible mining practices. The organization has so far profiled some 1,000 miners in Ghana for a pilot use of a set of digital tools. 

Interactive Voice Response allows farmers to engage in their first language, making information more accessible

Support from donors and partners

In West Africa, Solidaridad’s work is funded by the Netherlands Government, the Mastercard Foundation (MCF), the European Union (EU), the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the World Bank (WB), Henkel, Achmea,  Mondelez International, and many other private sector companies.

Certainly, Solidaridad could not have done all these alone.  The organization is grateful for the support of all development and implementing partners as it works to respond to the needs of beneficiaries at this critical time of COVID-19.