Radio and text messages keep farmers in the loop in Rwenzori

An innovative partner project in rural Uganda is using dialogue via radio and SMS messages to help farmers solve problems.

Teresa Corcoran's picture
Insight by 
Teresa Corcoran
19 March 2015
ON AIR: a local farmer joins a broadcaster in the studio of KRC.FM (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

ON AIR: a local farmer joins a broadcaster in the studio of KRC.FM (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

A goat with a swollen stomach, yellow-brown streaking on a banana plant's stem or today's retail price for cassava flour. These are some of the queries from farmers across the Rwenzori region of Western Uganda, coming through to KRC102.FM’s "Toll-Free Line".

In a recent learning exchange, the communications team at our partner Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC) showed us how they are harnessing the upward spiral in mobile phone usage to get their research directly to farmers in the community. Rural access to mobile phones in Rwenzori now averages around 53 per cent (source: KRC, 2013) and rising, while texting trends soar.

KRC.FM can receive more than 50 calls a day from farmers – a mixture of practical and technical queries which are passed on to their in-house researchers or their wider network of specialists. They also send out a daily SMS to some 2,000 registered users. These can include anything from market price data to information about a particular crop, harvesting tips to weather forecasts. It's a slick and effective operation that gets real-time answers straight to the farmer.

Agriculture is a core driver of Uganda's economy, it's central to employment and millions of livelihoods depend on it. KRC's focus is to package up their research often complex, scientific information and get it direct to the farmer, ready to use.

Pushing out and pulling in

The toll-free line and SMS generate a continuous cycle of information as Kaliisa Maureen, KRC's web and social media manager explains: "Pushing information out by texts works as a trigger for farmers to request more information. If we send out a text on planting tips for groundnut, for example, a listener might call back asking for clarification or ask a related question about a different crop."

Two thousand farmers are signed up to receive text messages from KRC (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)In a continuous information loop, questions prompted by the regular texts and picked up over the phone may then be fed back to inform another SMS as Kaliisa explains: "The text messages sometimes identify a recurring problem or question. Recognising this is affecting a number of farmers, we might design an SMS on that particular area since we know it's a wider issue."

Taking it on air

KRC also keeps communication flowing by linking information gathered via the toll-free line to KRC FM, The Farmers' Voice – a community radio station that is central to KRC's Information and Communication Unit. 

An estimated 85 per cent the population across the Rwenzori region own a radio and 95 per cent have access to radio information, making it a powerful tool for disseminating information on a massive scale, while avoiding the difficulties caused by low-literacy levels.

KRC.FM has only been up and running for eight months, but in that short time, listener numbers have rocketed – it currently broadcasts to more than 500,000 people, connecting listeners across a distance of around 80km.

Programming includes agriculture-related news and features, interviews, panel shows and phone-in sessions. And, as Kaliisa explains, queries from the toll-free line and from SMS messages also contribute to the programming: "If there's a common question coming through over the phones, we might bring a technical expert on the radio to talk about it in more detail, and invite listeners to join the conversation.

"It's another way of ensuring our content remains 100 per cent relevant and of continuing the dialogue. We're always looking for ways to keep our listeners engaging, sharing and learning."

Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC) (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

While KRC.FM connects listeners over vast distances, its listener groups provide another platform for farmer-to-farmer dialogue at local level.

KRC connects to 25 listeners' groups, each with an average of 200 members, so they have a membership of around 5,000 in total. The plan is to increase this to 100,000 members over the next five years.

"It's an ambitious goal," explains Chris Busiinge, head of KRC's Information Unit, and also one of IIED's international fellows. "But we know there are many radio listeners out there who are not yet registered. It's going to be a long term process, but we know there's lots we can achieve over the next five years."

We met some members of Rwimi Eastward Farmers' Revolution Listeners' Group, one of the larger groups with around 600 members. This group is organised into smaller clusters of around 50-60 people, one of which is chaired by Fatuma Agaba. She explained how her group meets twice a week to discuss what they've heard, to share learning and ask questions – on anything from crop production to farm management.

Fatuma Agaba, of Rwimi Eastward Farmers’ Revolution Listeners’ Group, and other members discuss banana management practices with KRC's in-house banana expert James Kwesiga (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)Fatuma also explained how, through KRC.FM, she and her group have learnt how to construct and maintain a granary for maize and millet storage, with instructions brought to life through a radio drama series.

"We learn a lot about food production through the radio, but if you don't have ways of storing your food, your harvest is wasted," explained Fatuma.

"Tell me and I listen"

Dialogue underpins all strands of KRC's communications work, as Busiinge explains: "There is an expression in Lukhonzo, our local language, 'Unyibwire ngakuhulikirire', which means 'tell me and I listen'.

"Lively, interactive and inclusive dialogue is key to everything we do. For us, verbal communication is one of the best and most powerful ways to get our research from the shelf to the farmer."

Dialogue is having an impressive impact across Rwenzori, whether it is through KRC's listeners' groups, the toll-free line, SMS or the radio. An inspiring message to share with IIED's work elsewhere.

Teresa Corcoran ([email protected]) is senior coordinator in IIED's Communications team.