Answering unasked questions and questioning given answers: designing a farmers’ information resource in the digital age

Taruvinga Magwiroto

As an extension programmer, there is always tension between answering what the farmer asks and designing answers to questions about what you think the farmers ought to ask. The push-pull conundrum is an old ethical question in extension (Roling 1988), and one that is also found in one of the foundational disciplines of extension: adult education (Lawson 1979). To what extent does the educator have the moral right to define the adult’s educational needs? After all, one of the principal assumptions of adulthood is autonomy or self-direction. At the same time, to what extent is an illiterate adult able to isolate their real need and articulate the kind of questions they need to ask to solve their problem?

In extension, the problems become accentuated when extension seeks to advance public rather than private goals. Think about climate change and the need for sustainable agricultural practices. As an extension programmer, whose needs do you prioritise? Mother earth or chemical-driven profits for the poor farmer?

Strategic communication versus ad hoc or advisory services

Extension can be conceived to be a continuum of top-down “prescriptive” programmes to demand-led “advisory” services.

The top-down version of extension is akin to answering an unasked question. Whilst it is associated with the much criticised innovation diffusion theory (Rogers 1963), it’s normative, pro-innovation bias still resonates with Africa today. Africa is still enmeshed in the “productionist” paradigm (Lang 2004): the pre-occupation with the right chemicals, the correct drugs, hybrid seeds and fertilisers. It is a food-insecure continent, and still driven by the need to master the wealth of scientifically-validated technologies established by agricultural research. Questions of animal welfare, organic food production and provenance are yet to be asked, so do they need an answer?

On the other hand, advisory or ad hoc services sound quite attractive. After all, this chimes well with the bottom up, participatory ethos that drives development practice today. In adult education, it also goes well with a view of an autonomous, self-directed learner who knows what they want and how to get it. Reality, as it is wont to do, is not that clear-cut.

Extension as HRD: Freire before Rogers

Demand-driven or demand-led, or bottom up extension depends on the ability of farmers to articulate demand on the extension system. But demand articulation does not happen on its own. Farmers need to have certain skills and confidence to engage in multi-stakeholder platforms with strangers. They need to have their voices heard first, to be able to put demands to the extension system. Not many farmers can do that. Maybe extension requires more Freire before Rogers, certainly within the African context.

ICT: an opportunity and a question mark

ICTs have allowed us to bridge the top-down bottom-up binary. I can design web-based programmes based on best-practice information. At the same time, I can connect to farmers directly through WhatsApp and Facebook and hear their concerns. Ideally, the strategic information source can drive debate and stimulate discussion, while discussions bring out the needs of farmers. That is action research. It is a good balance if you strike it, though nagging questions remain.

A question of audience heterogeneity: Digital platforms are associated with urbaneness or cosmopolitanism. The heterogeneity can be quite staggering. This brings in questions about language and culture. I am part of one Facebook group which gets quite heated arguments about which language to use on the platform. Do people use a local language in a multi-national platform? Would that be right? How about the local people who are not fluent in English, or do not want to speak that language? Do you look inwards or outwards? It is a contradiction between the platform administrators who see more value in an international outlook, and local participants who feel alienated from participating on such a forum.

A question of access: I have built a great website for small scale farmers. They need the information the most. But internet data is priced out of their reach. They cannot afford to open the website, data is too expensive. So is it all in vain? If a programmer depends on traffic for income, that brings very important need for funding. Somebody has to fund the cost of time and material production to enable the small holder to get a PDF document in their WhatsApp group. Or else the dictates of the market forces the programmer to target the already wealthy farmers who can afford the data to access the website.

More Rogers than Freire?

In line with the Matthew Effect, it is the case that participation in multi-stakeholder online platforms follows the off line trends. The more successful, confident players are the ones who contribute, ask questions and therefore have their issues attended to. Many of the small holder farmers, even when they are present on the platforms feel that they cannot ask, or hope that somebody will ask something that they will benefit from. As long as the situation remains like that, extension programming could mean becoming more Rogers than Freire: answering the unasked questions.

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