Agricultural researchers are getting to the point where the advantages of using paper are no longer outweighed by the disadvantages of using advanced technology in a rural setting. The logistics of printing and distributing questionnaires, for example, can be time and resource intensive. Once the questionnaire is out in the field it becomes very difficult to make any changes or corrections to it, making it a rather rigid research tool, especially when managing unexpected outcomes.
Smartphones and tablets are now used frequently in agricultural and rural research. However, in rural development settings simple and appropriate solutions are still recommended, according to Sander Muilerman, who works for the Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in West Africa. IITA did a baseline survey on occupational health and safety in 2012 among 420 adult cocoa farmers in Ghana without using paper. A parallel impact study using the same digital questionnaire targeted another 225 trained cocoa farmers.
No paper forms were used, only basic phones (and one GPS-enabled phone) equipped with a third-party Java application by three enumerators and a supervisor, with training on occupational safety and health. All phones were equipped with a special data SIM card, normally used in USB sticks for mobile broadband. This kind of SIM card only allows outgoing data connections, thereby effectively preventing misuse of credit by enumerators for calls or SMS messages.
Mobile phones can also be used because of other features and sensors available on smartphones: photos, GPS, multiple languages, audio, video, password, surface area measurement, compass reading, barcode, QR code, automated calculations, signature, slope, altitude and digital sketch. But it is not only technology that counts, according to Muilerman. ´Researchers need to think more about how to engage with farmers. Technology allows for more interactive and mixed method research – including with pictures, audio and video´. This is important for understanding agriculture as a complex system which, besides economic and ecological factors, also includes the social context of rural farming communities. Therefore, ICT projects in agriculture cannot be unidirectional or they may effectively devalue the traditional knowledge held by the farmers.
Using the same notion, scientists from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, the Zurich University of the Arts in Switzerland, the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology started a project in a village near the town of Bagamoyo in Tanzania. Their aim was to establish an open and participative research process in which local farmers use smartphones and a web platform to document their environment and the effects of climate change, and thus create a collaborative knowledge base that is useful for farmers, extension workers and researchers.
The project is called Sauti ya wakulima
, “The voice of the farmers” in Swahili. Five men and five women from the community take turns to share the two available smartphones, by exchanging them on a weekly basis. Whenever a farmer's turn to use the phone comes up, he or she has the task of using it to contribute content to the knowledge base. Farmers use messages, pictures and voice recordings to document their environment.