Despite its potential, the agricultural sector in Zambia has performed below expectations. One of the factors that have been repeatedly mentioned as responsible for this dismal performance has been weak research-extension-farmer linkages.
However, this will be a thing of the past as Zambian farmers will soon start using their mobile phones to send questions on the problems they face in carrying out their farming activities and receive answers within shortest time possible.
With financial and technical support from the International Institute of Communication for Development (IICD), the department of National Agricultural Information Services (NAIS) has finally developed an Internet based platform where farmers will be able to use mobile phones and send questions on the most pressing problems they are faced with in their farming activities to NAIS and receive appropriate answers within the shortest time possible.
The SMsize platform allows farmers to send their questions on mobile phones in form of SMS to the platform and receive answers to their questions.
The platform will be accessed by NAIS agriculture information officers and agricultural specialists and other identified stakeholders so as to give appropriate answers to the farmers’ questions.
The system will also help improve the feedback system between farmers, agriculture information officers and the agricultural specialists in the Ministries of Agriculture and Cooperatives and Livestock and Fisheries Development and other relevant agricultural institutions in the country.
Each SMS on the system will cost 900 Zambian Kwacha (US$ 0.18) and this will reduce the current expenses farmers are incurring to post or send their discussion report forms for possible solutions to their farming problems.
The platform has been tried with farmer groups in Kasama district of Northern Province of Zambia (which is a pilot area) located about 900 Km from Lusaka. Farmers were happy with the new platform as they see it as a tool that will help them bridge the existing information gap between farmers and agricultural experts.
“The system is very good. It will help us cut down on the costs of posting our radio discussion report forms and it will also help us get answers to our questions on the spot unlike in the past when we used to wait for months to get replies to our questions.” Kennedy Kanyanta, one farmer who tested the system in Kasama.
Based on the experiences in the piloted district, NAIS will now upgrade the platform and upscale the system to cover all the nine (9) provinces and allow all smallholder farmers access the platform.
The SMsize platform was recently introduced and demonstrated to the Permanent Secretary and all the Directors in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives (MACO).
The idea behind this demonstration was to create awareness and allow policy makers in the ministry see how it works so as to have management buy-in.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Abedanigo Banda said, “The system has been developed at the right time when the ministry is faced with a serious challenge of shortage of frontline extension officers. I promise to support the project by lobbing for cheaper rates for farmers to send SMSs which are currently a little bit higher.”
The Permanent Secretary further pledged to negotiate with his counterpart at the Ministry of Communication and Transport and management at the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority to allow the platform to be hosted by the ministerial website so as to reduce costs of hosting the system.
Currently, the platform is hosted by SMsize through Airtel, one of the mobile service providers in Zambia.