Farmerline is a service designed to add value to the lives of its users – and to do this, it has to understand them. This is why the Farmerline team is spending the next month in the Northern Region of Ghana, beginning in the district of Savelugu, doing research into the farming practices, technology use, and general lives of smallholder farmers. For the past week we have been doing field visits with the extension agents that work in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) office located in this village. This morning while I was on the way to the office, I got side-tracked.
Today a group of university students visited Pong Tamale to present a report they had compiled the previous year. The report was fat like a book, and very thorough. It did an intimate analysis of the community of Pong Tamale’s composition, problems, and potentials. They laid out their findings for community members and asked for feedback. The main points in the report will be highlighted and left with the university to give to NGOs looking to do projects in the area.
As I sat down in the audience, the presentation was just beginning. A young man got up and began to list basic information about Pong Tamale like its location, demographics, the location and staffing of the hospital and the number of schools.
In another setting this would have been natural, but they were presenting to the people of Pong Tamale. Why was this young man authoritatively informing members of this small community that it was majority Muslim, and that one of its major institutions was a vet college?
It was a small absurdity that these students had overlooked, but it reminded of a larger one I had observed the day before in the district office. It was mostly empty, as it apparently tends to be during planting season, when extension agents are most needed on the field by farmers. One agent arrived in a fury. He had just met with two auditors and a manager from a project that he and several agents had recently been assigned to participate in. There are three to four projects working out of this district office at any point in time, so this was not unusual. This project intended to connect farmers to banks, so they could get loans. The agents involved each spent a week or two going to communities, explaining the project, and helping farmers fill out application forms. Of the fifty-seven loan requests this extension agent had collected, none had been accepted. Yet, in his meeting with the auditors and project manager, they had requested he collect more loan applications.
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Why would this extension agent go out into the field and collect more loan applications, when he has fifty-seven unaddressed loan applications on his desk telling him that new ones won’t get approved? Why would project staff ask him to, after having met with him and heard this problem?
When an extension agent brings a project to farmers that does not work it harms their trust relationship with farmers, who feel they have been lied to. It also wastes both parties’ time, and a lot of money. I do not know why this project was pushing forward despite clear failures in practice, but I wonder if it has to do with the prioritization of paperwork over realities. If more farmers apply for loans, the project’s service is in high demand, and it can be recorded as a success – while in reality, more demand really means a larger stack of unapproved loan applications sitting on someone’s desk.
A project manager’s realities are likely to be donors and reports and stakeholders, just as a university student lives in a world of classrooms and assignments and grades. When the hurdles these individuals face are so different from those faced by a farmer, how do they keep the distant needs of the farmer central in their mind as they go about their daily activities?
This is one of the questions Farmerline faces as it pursues a “human centered design”. Getting this approach off paper and into reality is the project’s central goal and possibly its biggest challenge. It is why we are engaged in this field work. It is also why Farmerline is a demand-driven service. Using Farmerline will be a choice, and as such the service will have to constantly adjust to meet the needs of its customers. We believe that the mobile phones already owned by many Ghanaian farmers are a potential tool farmers can use to address their problems and access new opportunities. What do farmers want this tool to look like? How will Farmerline stay aware of their problems and desired opportunities? What is the best way for any ICT-based project to stay “human centered”?
These are questions we will likely never stop answering. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!
This is a picture from the student’s presentation.