Technology Improves Female Farmers’ Agricultural Productivity

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Fei Gao, C+S ’16

Seeing is believing, literally. Videos can help provide female farmers improve agriculture gains in low income countries.

Digital Green, an international non-profit development organization that determines to help rural communities improve their agriculture, heath and nutrition, believes that technology can lower the cost of education and also improve agricultural productivity globally. They want to combine the power of technology and human influence together by helping local female farmers increase agricultural yields. Their plan to do that is by having local farmers star in videos to share the secrets of their success. The process is composed of locally shot videos, selected village representatives and local help groups to support each other.

From 2000 to 2013, middle income and high income countries experienced a 48 percent and 57 percent increase in agricultural productivity. However, countries with low income — which are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s food — saw only a 16 percent gain. The issue in low income countries could because of almost 50 percent of the farmers are females yet only 5 percent of them were trained in proper farming techniques.

The Green Revolution in India had introduced advanced water usage practices, genetically modified seed, pesticide and so on into local areas. The newly introduced practices contributed to a drop agricultural prices, thereby an increasing number of men who moved to city areas looking for higher wages job opportunities. That left women without expertise in farming to support agriculture in rural areas. That’s something that needs to be remedied to help women escape the poverty trap.

In the developed world, there are free online education platforms to the public, so the cost of education is low. For the developing world, especially for remote regions and poor areas, these free online courses are not accessible. The traditional method for knowledge dissemination is to assign the experienced trainers to travel to these areas and give lectures to local farmers in person. But the drawbacks are obvious. Trainers can only make one visit at a time and frequently have to travel long distances. In addition, trainers don’t always speak the local language, so ineffective communication is another difficulty.

Digital Green introduced videos to educate farmers with advanced agricultural practices. They also invite local residents to be actively engaged in the training process by forming self help groups among farmers because technology by it self cannot achieve the mission of education. According to a study, programs that have mandated computers be used in schools have shown little improvement in students’ performance, sometimes even have negative effects.

Digital Green applies videos in the training process in a proactive way, requiring interaction from the audience through local workshops and well-designed follow up questionnaires rather them simply one-way transfer of knowledge.

What I did during this internship is to help researchers find out how these videos changed local farmers’ behaviors. There are more than 2,000 variables that we need to consider including the cost of seeds, yields, water usage, labor and so on. One difficulty during the analysis is that sometimes farmers were confused about the meaning of questions, especially those require specific definition. For example, when they were asked that whether they had adopted the advanced method suggested by the videos, those who adopted one or two process instead of the whole process would answer no, but in fact those one or two processes already improved the results and differentiated from the control group.

In the videos, the recommended method is System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which is a method aimed at advancing the yield of rice, principles incorporating using minimum quantity of water and transplanting seedlings in their early stage. Rice is a water intensive crop and according to research, SRI could help reduce the irrigation water up to 45 percent. That would benefit areas forced to deal with drought. The process of a successful SRI adoption is to transplant the young seedlings at an earlier stage than the traditional later stage. Many famers adopted this method after viewing the Digital Green video. While they didn’t apply the rest of the process, their yields still increased.

Although SRI is an advanced skill and would evidently improve the crop productivity, it is still not widely adopted. In Bihar, India, where Digital Green conducted this research, only 30 percent of local farmers adopt this practices. The spread of video-based education is essential of liberating the productivity potential in rural areas.

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