Drive to develop digital learning for East African farming

Researchers are working with farmers in East Africa to improve agricultural practices through the use of a digital learning service.

A University of Portsmouth project is being set up to investigate whether computer-assisted face to face informal group learning could aid farmers and increase productivity, while preserving traditional farming methods and practices.

Photo: Abdullah Ampilan/Oxfam

It is hoped that a mobile learning centre, which visits villages regularly, could aid learning and discussion on farming practices, both new and old, within these communities.

Principal investigator Manish Malik said: “Digital learning impacts most areas of the globe. In rural East Africa, the use of mobiles for accessing information has become a given. However, traditional farm practices are often handed down between families and within communities. Access to new information on modern farming practices can be beneficial to the farmers but it can sometimes be in conflict with traditional knowledge and values.

“There is a need for better integration of traditional and modern knowledge and values such that the farmers are able to make an informed decision to improve their productivity in a sustainable way.  A novel informal learning mechanism that helps farmers integrate the two knowledge sources, through the use of mobiles or mobile learning centres, could lead to better decision making and improve lives within the rural communities.

“We have built a computer orchestrated group learning environment (COGLE) ​and my research is about understanding the learning needs of the community and if farmers can benefit from this system.”

COGLE assists with video content delivery, relevant to a community’s needs. It also encourages the mastery of this content through group discussions and additional content on conflicting topics. It is like the traditional informal teaching within rural farming communities with a digital control to ensure the best result is achieved.

Much of East Africa suffers from problems of poor food security, exacerbated by weak supply-chains, basic education and market information, and by increasingly unpredictable weather conditions.

Mr Malik recently attended a workshop in Kenya to investigate research techniques and visited rural communities to discuss learning needs, existing practices and expectation.

Reflecting on the experience, he said: “Through our research, we were able to see that farmers valued the traditional knowledge passed down by families and friends in the farming community but they also valued the modern methods that increases the yields or improves the health of their livestock.”

“They placed importance on learning from each other, as this is how their community works. We found that the flow of information to them by local government was sometimes not clear and at other times late, leading to financial or livestock losses. When we asked what the farmers would find useful, a common theme that emerged was a local learning resource or web portal that they can access in their own time to enhance their productivity and success rates.”

The British Council sponsored the workshop for early researchers from UK and Kenyan universities. It was led by John Traxler, Professor of Digital learning at the University of Wolverhampton.

Professor Traxler said that as well as the problems of unpredictable weather and poor food security, East Africa was experiencing an issue with increasing land-use for large-scale, export-driven mono-cultural agribusiness (e.g. cut-flowers, salads for Europe) at the expense of sustainable low-input small-scale subsistence farming.

But he added: “East Africa is also characterised by an incredibly lively and universal mobile telecoms sector and entrepreneur culture. Whilst there are programmes and agencies working at the convergence of these issues, the research base of expertise, experience and methods is fragmented across several disciplines, as is advice and guidance to policy-makers, practitioners and officials.”

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