More and better rice, just sms

The Cyber village project is helping change the lives of rice farmers in pampangaExtension services via short text messages and the internet are changing the livelihoods of rural rice farmers in the Pampanga community in the Philippines.

The cyber village project, an innovative programme using ICTs tools to improve the exchange of knowledge and decision making among rice farmers in the 12 barangays (communities) of Apalit, in Pampanga, south of the capital Manila, has proved the power of e-extension. The project, a collaboration between the Pampanga Agriculture College, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Local Government Units, provides information to farmers on all aspects of growing rice via online platforms. Farmers use sms and the internet at the village level to access information from agriculture extension workers and vice versa.

For rice farmers like Benjamin Palao, the project has ensured that extension service - highly thin on the ground in many parts of the Philippines - are just a sms or click away. There is just one agricultural extension worker for 273 farmers in Pampanga with a population of more than 100 000 people. 1 640 of the population are rice farmers whose production is affected by the combined challenges of high input costs in rice production, high incidence of pests and diseases, drought, perennial flooding and typhoons.

"I regularly use my cellphone or go online to access information when I have a problem in my farm," says Palao, who has also made use of the IRRI Rice knowledge bank to keep abreast of trends in growing rice.

Palao's since rice yield has increased from 190 bags four years ago to 220 bags of rice today as a result of accessing information from the cyber village - one of eight pilot sites - a walking distance from his home.

Another farmer, Reynaldo Qantu, regularly uses the cyber village to access information on good rice varities to ensure that he gets more from his one hectare plot.

Benjamin PalaoHelping farmers increase the productivity and quality of rice is the reason for establishing the pilot project that has eased the wide gap of extension services available to farmers. The project, though still not yet evaluated for impact, has made a difference since it was launched.

"We do not have data to indicate impact but we know that we have been successful in reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied per hectare by farmers," says Dr. Virgilio Gonzalez, the Director of Extension and Training at the Pampanga Agricultural College. "Through testing we have been successful in reducing the rate of nitrogen fertiliser use by giving tips that excessive nitrogen application is often associated with high infestation of rice disease like bacterial leaf blight and other fungal diseases."

Dr. Gonzalez said farmers now no longer depend on the word of other farmers but ask questions through text and current information shows a 15 percent change in rice yields among farmers who have used the cyber village. Besides the number of varieties grown in the community has increased to about 10, giving farmers more choice for the marketing of their rice.

Farmers have also testified that their yield have increased in line with the reduced cost of farm inputs and increased net farm income now that they do not have to travel long distances to contact input dealers and rice buyers.

Challenges remain though.

"The problem of sustainability at the local level in the use of sms and internet services remains," Dr. Gonzalez said. "We still have a long way to go as only 16 out of 21 municipalities in Pampanga have adopted the system. When it comes to compliance local government units are really slow. Institutionalisation is provided for by law but compliance is a problem."

The effective provision of rural advisory services advocated by the Global Forum for Advisory Services (GFRAS) is critical for farmers and their families. RAS help farmers develop technical, organisational, and management skills and practices to improve their livelihoods and well-being.
In addition, GFRAS believes that rural advisory services play a critical connecting role in food and agricultural innovation systems.

"RAS help local communities to meet their needs and link them to scientific research and input and output markets," says GFRAS. "For example, extension helps them to respond to expected climatic changes, environmental degradation, and market volatility."

Benedict Pamatmat, assistant scientist at IRRI, who is overseeing the implementation of the cyber village project in the barangas, said the project has complemented the overburdened extension services and is helping in influencing farmers adopt technologies developed by IRRI and other research institutions. IRRI is promoting the Pinoy rice knowledge bank, a website depository of rice science information and technology.

by Busani Bafana