Technology in the field - One Giant Leap for LTT
Mobile data collection has helped to revolutionise how we collect the data we need to assess the progress of the farmers taking part in our agricultural training programme?
Every year we ask farmers what their plans are for the year, record their expected yields from each crop, the price they hope to sell at and the costs they expect to incur over the year. We also do this for livestock. This tells us the production levels and ultimately the profit they aspire to. We then record their progress against their plans. This is an exercise not only in monitoring the programme but also in agricultural planning enabling the farmers to assess the pay back on the crops they plan to grow and enabling them to adjust if they realise they will make a loss on certain crops. For some farmers, this has helped them to think about ways of saving money and therefore improving their profits promoting strategic thinking about their farming activities not simply doing the same year on year.
Through our training we are trying to give farmers the knowledge and skills they need to increase the productivity of their land and maximise their harvests, to support improved incomes and increase profits however when it comes to the actual levels of production and income there are many factors that come into play. Did the rains come at the time and in the quantity they were needed? Did the rains fall at other times when not wanted, which can affect the ripening process? Was there a problem with bugs and diseases which impacted on the harvests? How did the rest of the region/country perform? This effects the selling price and market demand. Where farmers able to store crops until the price went up or did they need to sell them to meet financial needs.
If we only look at income in some year’s, the yields might be high but the price low making it appear that the farmer has not done so well and conversely if the yields are low but the prices are high it might appear that the farmer did well. The dream scenario is of course high yields and high prices. We also need to consider that some crops are fast growers and so can provide fast turnover of income, some crops are one yield a year, so the timing of planting and multi-cropping is important especially if that multi-cropping can improve soil fertility and act as pest control. Meanwhile some crops are grown predominantly for the household and so are not expected to be a big earner and improved production can often mean the family has to buy less additional food, whilst other crops are purely for sale. Similarly, some farmers can generate large incomes from certain crops using high inputs meaning that although the income looks great the actual profit makes it less successful. We also need to be careful when comparing farmers as one acre of land in one location may provide a far better harvest than an acre just 2 km away. We therefore look at yields, income, profits and costs within the context of the year in question to help us assess the progress of farmers over the course of the year and to understand how the training we deliver is being implemented and the difference that makes for farmers yields and incomes. We also share this information with the farming groups to support them in evaluating their own success for the year and creating opportunities to learn from their peers where there have been significant successes.
This means we need to collect a lot of information and traditionally we’ve relied on paper surveys and significant man power and hours to input and then analyse all the information. This year LTT and MCDO have been developing and testing a mobile data collection system to allow our team of CASOs (Community Agricultural Support Officers) to gather the information on their smart phones directly from the fields in a short period of time. This is then sent through to an excel spreadsheet from which we can sort and compare data in close to real time. This significantly speeds up our data collection and analysis process which frees our team up to spend more time on training and mentoring of farmers and crucially enables us to adapt as the programme is running using real time information to respond to emerging needs and opportunities. It also means we can share insights into our programmes with our donors and supporters much faster. Simultaneously it also creates the potential to start putting farmers doing the same crops in touch, they could then begin sharing transport cost, sell in bulk and buy inputs in bulk as well as benefiting from peer support and learning. it is the first step towards voluntary cooperative working, which as with many things needs to demonstrate its benefits before being embarked upon.
While mobile data collection might seem simple and obvious to us in the UK given that we seem never to be more than 5 feet from someone using a smart phone, this is a new venture for MCDO and LTT which has the potential to transform the way we gather and use information and for some of our team it’s their first time using this kind of technology. Investing in this step is essential for LTT and MCDO to continue to effectively serve the increasing numbers of farmers we work with and although there are likely to be bumps in the road we are hugely excited about this new adventure!
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