African farmers

Sowing Seeds with SMS: Assessing Mobile Phones' Role in Agricultural Extension

Posted by EKStallings on Oct 06, 2011

Mobile phones may be one mechanism to increase effectiveness and efficiency for agricultural extension in low-income countries. Agricultural extension, broadly defined as the delivery of information to small-scale farmers, was developed to counteract information asymmetries suffered by farmers with limited access to information sources like landline phones, newspapers, radios and TV programming.  This has meant that farmers have not been able to take advantage of innovations in agricultural production (from seed types to information about pest control or crop rotations) and have been largely unable to increase their yields and hence incomes. 

While agricultural extension programs have tried to counteract this lack of information, they have also been long plagued by lack of scale, sustainability, relevance and responsiveness. Mobile phones, with their low-cost and capability for quick communication, may resolve many of these obstacles.

Dial “A” for Agriculture: A Review of Information and Communication Technologies for Agricultural Extension in Developing Countries, by Jenny C. Aker, a well-known researcher in the field, provides a broad overview of the shift toward using mobile phones in extension services and offers critical guides for assessing the effectiveness of such programs.

Half a century ago, extension programs were conceived to fill the glaring gap between agricultural innovation and crop yields. Despite great advances in agricultural innovations in the latter part of the twentieth century, farmers in Latin America and especially Sub-Saharan Africa have only seen slight increases in yields. Extension programs,which have largely taken the form of in-person visits and training, have consistently suffered from questions of cost-effectiveness.

Press One for Freedom Fone, Press Two for Farm Radio: How Stations Use Integrated Voice Response

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Aug 11, 2010
Press One for Freedom Fone, Press Two for Farm Radio: How Stations Use Integrated Voice Response data sheet 4776 Views

Two years ago, Bev Clark, the co-founder of, was awarded a large grant as part of the Knight News Challenge for Freedom Fone, an open-source software platform for distributing news and information through interactive voice response (IVR) technology.  Freedom Fone was officially launched in late February of this year and has since been downloaded about 200 times, said Amy Saunderson-Meyer of Freedom Fone.

Freedom Fone leverages audio as a mobile function using IVR, a technology that allows a system to detect voice and keyboard input. IVR allows a user to call, enter or say specific numbers, and listen to or contribute audio content.  (Many readers are already familiar with IVR - you’ve likely encountered it when you call a customer service number and are prompted with instructions to press numbers for different issues or service departments.)

Since the launch, Freedom Fone has provided support to specific organizations including Equal Access in Cambodia, Small World News TV, TechnoServe, One Economy Corporation, and Africa Youth Trust.

Basic Information
Organization involved in the project?: 
Project goals: 

Recently, Freedom Fone was adapted by two farm radio stations through the African Radio Research Initiative, a 42-month project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and implemented by Farm Radio International in partnership with the World University Services of Canada. The aim of the AFRRI project was to asses the effectiveness and impact of farm radio in many parts of Africa.

Brief description of the project: 

Freedom Fone leverages audio as a mobile function using IVR (interactive voice response), a technology that allows a system to detect voice and keyboard input. IVR allows a user to call, enter or say specific numbers, and listen to or contribute audio content.

Bartholomew Sullivan, a regional ICT officer for AFRRI, was on site to set up Freedom Fone at Radio Maria in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was the first time Freedom Fone partnered with a group outside of its own projects.

AFRRI works with 25 radio stations in five countries in Africa. Stations include private, public, national, and community radio stations with established listeners in varied agricultural zones. Freedom Fone was introduced at two of these radio stations: Radio Maria (a faith-based station that also broadcasts health and agricultural information across the country) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Volta Star radio (the national broadcaster) in the Volta region of Ghana. Before the project, neither station had an existing IVR system in place and the primary feedback loop with listeners was through written letters.

Target audience: 

Any individual or group interested in integrated voice response, especially in how it can be used at a radio station.

Detailed Information
Mobile Tools Used: 
Length of Project (in months) : 
What worked well? : 

One benefit to Freedom Fone integration at an established radio station is the ability to promote the IVR service. At Radio Maria, the broadcasters relied on the large number of existing listeners to promote and explain the service including the specific local numbers to call. The group created a special jingle and message to promote the competition.

Another thing that worked well was the ability to set up multiple call-in numbers for each of the main local mobile providers in the region: Vodacom, Zain, and Tigo. This allowed listeners to call from their respective networks, making it cheaper.  The group used similar sounding numbers for each of the networks.

The participatory radio campaign approach was to enhance existing systems, not add new content or processes to the farm radio stations. So, Sullivan and others were able to incorporate and adapt Freedom Fone to best match the needs and uses of the listeners.

A more general success for Freedom Fone is the ability to provide an alternative, mobile-based medium for news and information.

What did not work? What were the challenges?: 

The projects at Radio Maria and Volta Star (and specifically in regards to Freedom Fone) were not without challenges and issues, including reliable hardware, cost, human error, power, and training.

One challenge is obtaining high-quality or dedicated hardware. In Tanzania, Sullivan bought a second-hand computer locally to host the Freedom Fone software.  Cost can be an issue with some hardware as well.

Human error is a challenge inherent with Freedom Fone, which ironically stems from the high adaptability of the platform and the ability for control many parameters of the IVR process.

Power is an issue, especially in areas with unreliable power because, “when the computer is off, then Freedom Fone is down,” Sullivan said. Similarly, infrastructure is really important, including having backup power supplies for power outages.

Another issue to incorporating Freedom Fone at established organizations is training.

Finally, another challenge with Freedom Fone was the ability to deal with user error or confusion.