2. Africa: Dialling up farm info (Farm Radio Weekly, UN Integrated Regional Information Networks)

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Are there spots on your tomatoes that you can’t identify? Are you puzzling over the best breed of dairy cow? If you live in Kenya, help is now just a phone call away.

The National Farmers Information Service, or NAFIS, is a new telephone system that offers guidance on crops and livestock. For example, a farmer planning a tomato patch can dial up recorded information on different tomato varieties and methods of starting seeds. A dairy farmer can listen to messages on disease treatment and learn when it’s necessary to contact a veterinarian.

Isaac Mulagoloi is Program Coordinator for the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Program, which operates NAFIS. He says that agricultural extension workers can only contact about half of Kenya’s 4.5 million farmers in person. Through NAFIS, they hope to reach a much larger number – about four million.

Mr. Mulagoloi explained that the system was started with information on four of Kenya’s highest value agricultural products – tomatoes, French beans, dairy, and chicken. Extension workers wrote key messages about each product, ranging from when and how to plant and weed, through produce storage and marketing. An automated speech program was used to record the messages in English and Kiswahili.

Over time, NAFIS will expand to include information on more locally-produced crops, and recordings in local languages.

NAFIS may be the latest example of agricultural information service available over the phone line, but it’s not the only one. In Cameroon, for example, a service called Allô Ingénieur offers a direct link from a farmer on her cell phone in the field to an expert in an office lined with books.

Marie Martine Yobol is Director of Allô Ingénieur, a program operated by the Swiss NGO, Service d’appui aux Initiatives Locales de Développement. She says many callers are interested in trying new farming techniques, but lack the resources to research their options.

A common question is whether corn seeds from the July harvest can be sown in August. Ms. Yobol is glad that people ask because: no, these seeds need a longer time to dry and will not sprout if planted in August.

On a more positive note, Allô Ingénieur can often confirm that a farmer with an innovative idea is on the right track. The service is also there with advice on how to prevent animal diseases such as avian flu, or how to salvage a crop that has been hit by a plant disease.