Makerere University through the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES) boasts of one of the leading agricultural research centers in Uganda, producing numerous agricultural technologies that are transforming agriculture across nationally and regionally. Over the years, College of Agriculture has been focused undertaking impact oriented teaching, learning, research, and outreach with a focus at addressing the challenges faced by smallholder farmers. The College of Agriculture has been relying on farmer field days, graduate internships, and demonstration plots set-up as knowledge and technology dissemination approaches to reach smallholder farmers. However, besides the limitation of these approaches to provide farmers with opportunities to raise specific knowledge needs, their implementation are often based on the university calendar of events, with minimal continued interaction once the university technical teams have departed. As a result, critical knowledge and technical guidance resident in the university that could transform smallholder agriculture continues to remain under unitized. This has led to limited university impact among smallholder farmers despite the cutting edge research outputs that are internationally recognized.
In a bid to address the visible gaps and weaknesses of university-community partnerships and collaboration; Makerere University in collaboration with partners (WOUGNET and P’KWI INC.) with support from RUFORUM developed an outreach framework for strengthening university-farming community engagement known as the SUFACE Model. The SUFACE Model utilizes a number of ICT tools that have been developed and deployed. The focus of this model is to increase the interaction between smallholder farmers The tools include, the SUFACE web portal (www.suface.org), SUFACE mobile app, input-output service provider database, soyabean and ground nuts knowledge base and an SMS broadcast engine. Smallholder farmers in the districts of Apac, Kole, Lira and Bukedea using an android mobile app are able to send a request information on a specific problem relating to disease or pest outbreak. Farmers who are unable to type or express themselves in English have an option of voice recording their request in the dialect of their choice and send to the SUFACE platform. These questions in local dialects are then translated by agents at Kubere Information Center operated by WOUGNET into English, then submitted to the experts at Makerere for response. Using the mobile application and/or the SUFACE portal the experts then respond to the specific requests. The system is designed to allow timely response to the farmer’s requests within 48hrs. In case of disease and pest outbreaks, the SMS engine is used to broadcast alerts and action information to other smallholder farmers. Further, in order to enhance diagnosis of farmers information needs, farmers are encouraged to record 30 seconds videos and/or take a picture of the plant or animal and submit to through the platform. The farmer-expert dialogue and exchange is later on synthesized into knowledge products for learning and planning.
This project has so far registered commendable success with over 2000 farmers in Apac, Kole, Lira and Budekea reached with thousands of queries timely processed. The project has noticed that the use of these highly interactive mobile phone applications will revolutionize access to knowledge from universities and research centers thereby empowering smallholder farmers to improve their production, strengthen market access and enhance dissemination of best practices. The project has also been able to observe that the short message system (SMS) platform was widely accessed by smallholder farmers but provided limited information to guide the implementation of actions suggested. Thus, a blend of interactive information relayed through the SMS platform and video clips and recording platform need to be implemented to elicit greater farmer responsiveness. Further, using mobile applications such as the SUFACE interactive application is cheaper to operate compared to SMS platforms on cost basis decision analysis. This approach has also revealed a greater benefit to farmer-university interaction with observable reduction in costs of engagement by 80 percent. Interactions with smallholder farmers has also revealed the modifications and innovations needed to further escalate the use of mobile phone applications including among others: need to pre-package knowledge products to minimize the processing time of queries; need to develop an extensive service system that will cater for the mixed, inter-crop and crop-livestock integration farming practiced by smallholder farmers. Further, there is need to develop mechanism to allow farmers to have translation of farmer voice queries from local language to English and from English to local dialects for maximum impact.