Tanzania: Maize farmers turn to cell phones and radios for help adapting to drought

| December 11, 2017

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Fatuma Aly Kajogoo adjusts her red headscarf to keep the sweat out of her eyes. She stands smiling among rows of maize shoots that she hopes will provide enough food for her six children. Mrs. Kajogoo grows maize and cassava on a one-acre plot in Songa, a village in Tanzania’s Tanga region, about six hours’ drive north of Dar es Salaam.

Like many farmers in the area, she has changed the way she farms to adapt to drier weather, depleted soil, and new seed varieties. And like many farmers, she turns to her cell phone and her radio when she needs information and guidance about new farming inputs and techniques.

Mrs. Kajogoo says, “Women have many tasks, [such as] cooking, [and] finding charcoal and water. The radio program is on at a good time for me.”

She’s talking about Shamba darasa, or “Field class,” a weekly program broadcast on Voice of Africa for two seasons in 2016 and 2017. The show focused on many aspects of maize farming, such as using fertilizers, selecting seeds, controlling pests, and harvesting.

Listeners could also sign up to receive related tips and reminders via free text messages. An NGO called CABI, or Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, worked with farmers, seed suppliers, and other agricultural experts to prepare the messages. Farmers received the agriculture tips several times a week on their cell phones. Farm Radio International helped Voice of Africa prepare the radio programs.

Mrs. Kajogoo says she learned from both the radio show and the SMS messages, which reminded her of what she had heard on the radio. She says, “With SMS, you have to read it and sometimes it’s hard to understand. There isn’t enough explanation. [But] radio is like a conversation—you can understand it better.”

Yusta Tarimo is the local extension officer in Songa. She says the SMS tips complemented the radio programs. But she agrees with Mrs. Kajogoo that radio is easier for many farmers to understand. She adds, “Some farmers don’t know how to read the SMS messages. Sometimes they receive the SMS, read it quickly, and then forget about it.”

Reduced rains and depleted soil led to a disastrous maize harvest in much of Tanga region last year. Jumanne Ramadani Jumbe harvested three 100-kilogram sacks of maize from his two-and-a-half-acre farm in Songa. After 20 years of farming maize, cassava, and rice, he says he needed to learn some new techniques to help adapt to the changing climate.

Mr. Jumbe explains: “I was a farmer for a long time. Previously I was a teacher. But I still learned a lot—I learned to use the [new varieties of] certified seeds, how to control pests and diseases, and the proper timing for planting.”

Mr. Jumbe learned these things from farmers and experts who shared their experiences on the radio show, and from the tips he received on his cell phone.

For example, he learned how to recognize viral diseases that attack maize plants. He also learned what to do if one of his plants was infected.

The next time he planted maize, using his new knowledge and new seeds, he harvested 27 sacks.

Mr. Jumbe says the text messages contained useful information, but sometimes came at the wrong time. For example, he received a message about how to space his seeds after he had already planted his whole field.

Mrs. Kajogoo also had a much better harvest in 2017 than 2016. She says: “In previous seasons, because of the bad climate conditions, in one acre I harvested less than three [100-kilogram] bags of maize. The result was, there was hunger in the family.”

This year, Mrs. Kajogoo planted a new variety of maize that tolerates hot, dry weather and resists diseases. She harvested more than 15 sacks of maize.

She says she would like to continue receiving farming tips and reminders on her phone. She keeps her mobile phone with her all the time, and not just for calls and messages. She also uses it as an FM receiver, to listen to her favourite radio programs.

This story was prepared with the support of USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund, through the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Tanzania. For more information about the Fund, please see: https://www.ifad.org/

Photo: Yusta Tarimo is the local extension officer in Songa
with files from Emerilinda Temba