Encouraging technology adoption: Evidence from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia
Communications tools, including digital extension tools (DETs) like phone calls and smartphone applications, can be important pathways to help improve farmers’ knowledge and capacity regarding improved agricultural techniques. However, in many middle- and low-income countries, these tools are underutilized, particularly in rural areas. A recent paper published in Global Food Security examined the use of these tools in in Bihar, India to identify why and how farmers and agricultural extension workers do, and do not, choose to adopt them.
The qualitative study interviewed 40 DET developers in 21 countries across Africa south of the Sahara, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and 101 DET users (farmers and extension workers with direct access to a mobile phone) in Bihar. The researchers then used their findings to build a practical framework aimed at helping developers create more useful, effective DETs for low-income, rural contexts.
The results show that low DET adoption stems from two main causes: farmers’ lack of access and failure of DETs to truly meet farmers’ needs.
More specifically, both developers and users agreed that DET use faces several common challenges:
- Users’ lack of awareness of the tools, access to mobile devices, and access to electricity or mobile networks
- Tools’ insensitivity to digital illiteracy and overall illiteracy
- Tools that are designed in unfamiliar languages, slow to access, hard to interpret, and unengaging
- Tools that do not account for users’ knowledge, priorities, or socio-economic realities
- Tools that are irrelevant to farms
- Distrust of DETs to provide accurate, honest information
While DET developers would have a clear interest in overcoming these hurdles, interestingly, the study found that DET users themselves often made efforts to address these challenges and make the tools more useful for themselves and their communities. Interviewed users sought community support to overcome barriers to access and understanding; discussed the information shared through DETs with their peers to overcome distrust, build awareness, and learn how content could be more relevant for them; experimented with information and practices shared through DETs on their farms to adapt DETs to better fit their needs; and created their own DETs through phone calls and chat groups to share farming knowledge and discuss other DETs’ functionality and usefulness.
The authors suggest that this finding highlights the importance of designing DETs that are easy for users to appropriate (i.e., actively adjust and adapt to fit their specific needs), not just easy to adopt.
In addition to agreeing on the most common constraints to increased DET use, both developers and users also agreed that a key ingredient in a successfully adopted DET was user involvement in design and provision of these tools. Collaboration between developers and users can help ensure that developers truly understand farmers’ needs rather than just assuming them. This includes talking to farmers to find out their priorities and challenges and designing context-specific DETs that better target specific populations, geographic locations, crops, or agricultural challenges.
The framework developed using the study findings aims to help DET developers better anticipate and mitigate gaps in their tool’s design and content that might prevent farmers from adopting it. In this way, developers can ensure more smallholder farmers in low-income countries are able and willing to take advantage of these important information-sharing technologies.