Malawi: Text messages help farmer increase yields

| August 18, 2014

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For more than a decade after her husband’s death, Alice Kachere and her three children could not grow enough food to feed themselves. The widow, who lives in Chinthedzu, 20 kilometres south of Lilongwe, knew little about farming.

When Mrs. Kachere took responsibility for the family farm after the death of her husband in 2002, she faced major challenges. She says, “Our village stayed without being visited by an extension worker for many years. As I lacked skills in good agricultural practices, hunger never left my house.”

But in July 2012, the situation changed. Agents from an NGO came to her village and recorded the telephone numbers of farmers who wanted agricultural advice via their mobile phones. Mrs. Kachere decided to register her contact details. Soon, she started receiving text messages on her handset.

The information she received quickly helped Mrs. Kachere improve her farming. She now harvests 10 tonnes of maize from a 1.2 hectare plot which used to produce less than one tonne.

Mrs. Kachere credits the text messages. She explains: “Within a year, people noticed a change in my farming skills, and in 2013 I was chosen to be a lead farmer. I now know the good time to plant, how and when to apply fertilizer, and I have adequate knowledge in … weeding, harvesting, storage and packaging.”

As a lead farmer, Mrs. Kachere operates a demonstration plot. There, farmers gather to discuss farming issues such as good agricultural practices, climate change, HIV and AIDS, gender, and farming as a business. She says, “The messages we receive through our mobile phones help us in our discussions.”

Noel Limbani is the coordinator of text-based extension services for the Department of Agricultural Extension Services. He is happy that the project has helped reduce the workload of field extension workers, many of whom must travel long distances to visit farmers.

He says, “We targeted farmers with mobile phones so that they [would] share the messages with other farmers … this has helped a lot in the delivery of extension services.”

Lute Chiotha is an agricultural extension officer. She works with more than 2,500 farmers in the Mitundu area, near the city of Lilongwe. Ms. Chiotha says the text messages have increased farmers’ knowledge and improved the way they share information.

Because farmers face problems related to climate change − including diseases, extreme temperatures and poor rains − they have had to change the way they farm. Ms. Chiotha says, “They need constant advice on farming, and using mobile phones appears to be effective in my area.”

Mrs. Kachere has certainly benefitted. The information in the text messages helped her increase her yields. But she thinks that farmers would benefit if the messages covered more topics. She says: “I am requesting the Department of Agricultural Extension Services to include market and weather information in the text messages. I take farming [to be a] business and, as farmers, we have to be on the lookout for climate change which is affecting production.”

Mrs. Kachere is happy to be receiving extension text messages. Her family’s life has improved since she signed up for the service, her farm is more productive, and she can sell the surplus from her harvests.

She says: “My husband died and left me in a grass-thatched house. But now, I am able to send my children to school, and I have managed to build a house [which has] corrugated iron sheets and electricity.”