Innovating Extension: ICT Improves Knowledge Absorption on Seed Quality
Smallholder farmers located in the southwestern tip of Uganda engage in potato farming to feed their families and to earn some extra income. The hilly area, bordered in the south by Rwanda and in the west by the Democratic Republic of Congo, has a relatively cool climate and fertile volcanic soil, making it perfect for the cultivation of the spud. At the same time, the area suffers from high population pressure and land degradation. Increasing potato production without further stressing natural resources will thus require increasing yields, allowing farmers to grow more on increasingly smaller plots.
It All Starts With Seeds
In the context of Pasic, a large policy action project to increase sustainable intensification of cropping systems in Uganda, it was found that seed quality is the main factor holding potato farmers back. Good quality propagation material increases yields from about six tons per hectare to 11 tons and makes additional inputs such as fertilizer much more effective. While strengthening formal seed systems through the creation of an enabling environment and promotion of investment in the seed supply chain remain key priorities, it was also realized that this is unlikely to happen overnight. Realizing most farmers rely on recyling seeds for planting in subsequent seasons, we looked for additional ways in which the quality of the stock of potato seed can be improved.
Positive Seed Selection
Talking to farmers, extension officials and experts in the field, we quickly found out there is a selection issue at play. Farmers start to get hungry and impatient towards the end of the growing season and uproot the largest, strongest and healthiest looking potato plants first for food. In addition, the largest tubers are picked from the store for consumption, as they are easier to peel and tastier to eat. What is often left for planting are the small, malformed tubers that come from plants that were affected by disease. This process of negative seed selection leads to rapid degeneration of the seed stock. Turning this around into Positive Seed Selection, whereby the strongest potato plants are marked for follow-up from flowering stage onward and only healthy tubers of appropriate size are retained as seeding material, was therefore one of the objectives.
Proper Seed Storage and Handling
A second way in which seed quality can be improved is through paying more attention to storage and handling of seed potatoes. When seed is recycled, there is a critical period between the harvest and the next planting season when tubers need to be conserved. Proper storage and handling, whereby tubers are spread on racks or on dry grass and are inspected regularly for rotten or disease affected tubers, is very important in the humid tropics. Sufficient ventilation and diffuse light conditions result in optimal sprouting and subsequent growth.
Using ICT to Increase Knowledge About Seed Selection, Storage and Handling
To raise awareness on these two key potato seed quality aspects, we produced two short videos. In the first video, Mathias, a potato farmer from the region, points out how farmers can increase yields through positive seed selection. In a second video, Mathias points out the benefits of storing and handling potatoes according to recommended practices. The videos were shown using Android tablet computers, as ICT has been suggested as an important complement to traditional agricultural extension services. To test if farmers actually learned something from these extension videos, we showed them to randomly selected farmers in the region and subsequently tested their knowledge with a short quiz. The results are summarized in a study that was published recently in PLoS One.
We found that farmers who were shown the video on seed selection were more likely to say the largest and healthiest plants should be tagged and followed up to produce seeding material. They also had better knowledge about the ideal size of seed potatoes. Farmers that were shown the video on storage and handling had a better understanding of how seeds should be stored. More interestingly, we found knowledge effects that appear to go beyond what was shown in the video. Farmers that were shown the video on, for instance, seed selection also seem to have gained knowledge about storage and handling. This suggests that farmers go beyond simply absorbing information and actively process what is shown in the video and apply this in different contexts. More research on how this finding can be used to make agricultural extension videos more effective is needed.
Showing a video and finding that knowledge has increased is only a first step. Farmers now also have to act upon this knowledge. To measure any progress, we will visit the farmers again after the next season. But for now, we can at least conclude that short videos can be a valuable tool to increase knowledge among smallholder farmers.