Using Communication to Improve Agriculture in Africa

Researchers from the MSU Department of Media and Information presented on the power of communication technologies to improve agricultural practices in East Africa through a workshop in Tanzania in mid-June.

Professor of Media and Information Charles Steinfield facilitated a one-day workshop on how to develop and apply learning videos created with input from local communities. The 22 attendees included representatives from government agencies, NGOs and African universities that provide agricultural extension services. Held in Dar es Salaam, the workshop was the culmination of a long-term project with MSU's Global Center for Food System Innovation that looked at the effectiveness of participatory videos in educating small farmers about advances in farming techniques, management and drought-resistant crops in rural Africa.

"MSU is a global leader in agriculture and in supporting agricultural innovation around the world," says Steinfield "This project combines intellectual resources from across MSU to develop creative solutions to agricultural problems, and continues our long tradition of capacity building to enhance food security worldwide."

Steinfield's work investigating how evolving new media applications might help rural farmers in developing regions began in 2013, and was spurred by the opening of the GCFSI within MSU's International Studies Program. He says the center was instrumental in moving the project forward based on its strong focus on creating, testing and enabling multidisciplinary solutions that address pressures on the world's food supply.

Steinfield saw an opportunity to educate small farmers through the application of video and other digital media. After securing funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development through the GCFSI, Steinfield assembled a cross-departmental team to launch a project that involved local communities in creating educational videos about the viability of new, climate resilient maize varieties.

The team collected narrative elements by visiting small farmers throughout western and south central Kenya. Steinfield and colleagues listened to farmer's stories, assessed their reasons for not using drought resistant varieties and created a low-cost video based on those perspectives. Agricultural extension workers from Farm Input Promotions-Africa helped the team identify filming locations and recruit local farmers as actors, while expertise on maize varieties was provided by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Nairobi. A translator worked alongside the team so that the video could be created in Kamba—the local language of the target region.

"Having local actors speak in their local language made the video extremely compelling," says Steinfield. "We also structured the video around the story of a local family and filmed lots of demonstrations."

Once the video was completed, Tian Cai, a Media and Information doctoral candidate, led a detailed study for her dissertation under Steinfield's guidance aimed at testing the video's effectiveness. The study used a field experiment involving 27 villages, with 16 villages receiving a video screening followed by a moderated discussion. The other 11 villages served as a control group and were not shown the video. In eight of the "treatment" villages, Cai and the team furthered investigated whether adding mobile phone reminder messages would help the farmers remember the video content throughout the growing season.

"The team followed up with the same farmers to see what they remembered from the video, and if it had any influence on their decisions regarding what maize variety they planted or intended to plant," says Steinfield. "A key finding from Cai's thesis is that the combined video plus phone reminder approach clearly had the strongest impact on farmers' learning and intention to use drought-tolerant maize."

Steinfield says attendees at the recent workshop were persuaded by the findings, and were eager to apply participatory video in their approach to improving farming practices.

"It is important to first spend the time needed to understand the local context and involve the local community in order to create solutions that use technologies in ways that are more appropriate to peoples' lives," says Steinfield. "This project was very much aligned with the philosophy of the Media and Information Department at MSU."

Other members of the project team from Media and Information were Associate Professor Jennifer Olson, and Kirk Mason, an undergraduate who filmed the 30-minute video. Tara Mock, a Ph.D. candidate from the African American and African  Studies program, also contributed to the project.

View the video here:

By Ann Kammerer