Sauti ya wakulima, “The voice of the farmers”, is a collaborative knowledge base created by farmers from the Chambezi region of the Bagamoyo District in Tanzania by gathering audiovisual evidence of their practices using smartphones to publish images and voice recordings on the Internet.
The project website explains what it is about:
‘The participants of Sauti ya wakulima, a group of five men and five women, gather every Monday at the agricultural station in Chambezi. They use a laptop computer and a 3G Internet connection to view the images and hear the voice recordings that they posted during the week. They also pass the two available smartphones on to other participants, turning the phones into shared tools for communication. The smartphones are equipped with GPS modules and an application that makes it easy to send pictures and sounds to the Internet. The farmers at Chambezi use them to document their daily practices, make reports about their observations regarding changes in climate and related issues, and also to interview other farmers, expanding thus their network of social relationships.
The farmers at Chambezi not only struggle because of insufficient infrastructure and unreliable markets for their products, but they are also facing the challenges of a changing local climate. Less rains, less underground water and unprecedented threats caused by pests and plant diseases are some of the pressing issues that they have to deal with. However, they know that by sharing their knowledge on how to cope with these problems, they can become stronger and find ways to overcome them. They hope that, by communicating their observations to extension officers and scientific researchers, who can be in remote locations, they can participate in the design of new strategies for adaptation. They want their voices to be heard: they have so much to say.”
‘As soon as the farmers became familiar with the phones and the web page, they began to use them to learn from one another. One of the farmers, Mr. Haeshi Shabani, was having trouble growing maize. He didn’t know why his yields were so poor until he saw a picture of a maize field, uploaded by one of his colleagues. He realized that he was planting it in the wrong season, and that he was not growing it in terraces in order to prevent water logging. So, with this new knowledge, he tried again and, a few months later, Mr. Shabani got his first successful maize harvest.”
“Eugenio Tisselli Vélez helped to initiate Sauti ya wakulima, and is currently the project’s general coordinator and IT person. He recently took the time to speak with Nourishing the Planet about Sauti ya wakulima and the lessons the world can learn from these African farmers.
The value of using technology to assist farmers and agricultural practices has only relatively recently gained attention. How did you become involved?
My involvement in Sauti ya wakulima is the fruit of two convergent interests. On one hand, I have always been interested about food and sustainability. I have studied this topic for some time, and I greatly value small-scale agriculture as a feasible and sustainable way for feeding ourselves in the future. On the other hand, during the last 7 years I have collaborated on projects that help groups use mobile phones and the Internet to express their issues and share their experiences. In 2011 there was the possibility of starting a new project with farmers in Tanzania and mobile phones, so I just went for it.
What inspired you to initiate the Sauti ya wakulima project? What role do you currently play?
In the beginning, I knew very little about the specific situation of agriculture in Tanzania. I began learning about it by reading reports, but the real inspiration came when we visited the fields. During an intensive week in 2010, we visited many farms in the area of Bagamoyo and interviewed the farmers. It was clear that something was changing: all of the farmers told us that the short rain season had practically disappeared. There was much less water in general, and their wells were running dry. Because of this drought, new pests and diseases were appearing. That’s when it became clear to me that a multimedia tool that allowed farmers to communicate their observations on climate change through images and voice recordings would be useful. Sometimes we can understand complexity much better if it is narrated by those who are in its midst. I was also very encouraged when I saw the great familiarity with which the farmers had adopted and appropriated mobile phones as a tool for their practices.
What have the farmers shared with you about their experiences with Sauti ya wakulima?
Farmers have used and shared the smartphones to create a body of multimedia documentation. Initially, we suggested the farmers use the phones to publish images and voice recordings of their observations related to changes in climate. However, they were not limited by this initial request, and soon they began to appropriate the tools and publish other things. In a recent interview with the farmers, they expressed their satisfaction with the project, and described it in their own terms. For some, the project had been a good way to strengthen community bonds, as they find themselves talking about issues that they hadn’t discussed before. They discovered that their peers held important fragments of agricultural knowledge which were probably latent. Because of this discovery, they see Sauti ya wakulima as a tool for mutual learning. But this process of learning has not been limited to the exchange that happens within the Chambezi group. The farmers have used the smartphones to interview other farmers who are not within the group, expanding thus their social network. They have even showed Sauti ya wakulima in agricultural shows at Morogoro [a city in the southern highlands of Tanzania] and Dar es Salaam [the country’s capital]. One of the participants said that the project made them proud, because other farmers perceived them as “being very advanced”. And they were also satisfied with their newly-acquired knowledge about ICT. A woman from the Chambezi group said: “I have realized that fancy phones and computers are not only for the rich people in towns. They are also tools that can help us.”
What have been some of the biggest challenges and greatest successes? Have you been surprised at all by some of the results or aspects in this process?
The main tangible result of Sauti ya wakulima is the online, multimedia knowledge base created by farmers. The project’s main focus, as expressed by the farmers themselves, is that of mutual learning. In this light, a number of important learning experiences have taken place. For example, one of the farmers realized that he was not planting maize correctly because of a picture taken by one of his colleagues. He changed his technique and had a successful harvest. An experience like this might be considered as a small success, but I think it points towards very bright possibilities. If the project could be expanded so that it could involve more farmers in different areas, the knowledge base and its potential as a source for learning would greatly increase. And that is precisely our biggest challenge, to expand the project and make it sustainable.
What do you see for the future of technology in agriculture?
I hope that we can all learn from the African farmers. Our ways of feeding ourselves are unsustainable and are, in fact, contributing to the degradation of our ecology. We must not only return to farming techniques which are more respectful with the environment, but we must also give small-scale farming a central value within our societies. Since the Industrial Age, we have systematically devalued small-scale farming, and have thus turned agriculture into an industry and a business. Clearly, this can’t continue. We must literally return to the land. Sauti ya wakulima hopes to make visible the knowledge held by the farmers in Bagamoyo, so that we can also learn.”