University of Portsmouth Partners with East African Farmers to Boost Agriculture Sector Growth

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The University of Portsmouth, a learning institution based in England, is partnering with East African farmers in a bid to boost agriculture sector growth through a digital learning system.

As part of the partnership, a project is being set up to investigate whether computer-assisted face to face informal group learning could aid farmers and increase productivity, wile preserving traditional farming methods and practices.

It is hoped that a mobile learning centre, which visits villages regularly, could aid learning and discussion on farming practices, both new and old, within these communities.

“Digital learning impacts most areas of the globe. In rural East Africa, the use of mobiles for accessing information has become a given,” said Principal Investigator, Manish Malik.

“However, traditional farm practices are often handed down between families and within communities. Access to new information on modern farming practices can be beneficial to the farmers but it can sometimes be in conflict with traditional knowledge and values,” Malik explained.

“There is a need for better integration of traditional and modern knowledge and values such that the farmers are able to make an informed decision to improve their productivity in a sustainable way,” he continued.

Malik stated that a novel informal learning mechanism that helps farmers integrate the two knowledge sources, through the use of mobiles or mobile learning centres, could lead to better decision making and improving lives within the rural communities.

“We have built a computer orchestrated group learning environment (COGLE) and my research is about understanding the learning needs of the community and if farmers can benefit from this system,” he said.

COGLE assists with video content delivery, relevant to a community’s needs. It also encourages the mastery of this content through group discussions and additional content on conflicting topics. It is like the traditional informal teaching within rural farming communities with a digital control to ensure the best result is achieved.

Mr Malik recently attended a workshop in Kenya to investigate research techniques and visited rural communities to discuss learning needs, existing practices and expectation.

“Through our research, we were able to see that farmers valued the traditional knowledge passed down by families and friends in the farming community but they also valued the modern methods that increases the yields or improves the health of their livestock,” he commented.

“They placed importance on learning from each other, as this is how their community works. We found that the flow of information to them by local government was sometimes not clear and at other times late, leading to financial or livestock losses. When we asked what the farmers would find useful, a common theme that emerged was a local learning resource or web portal that they can access in their own time to enhance their productivity and success rates,” elaborated Malik.

The British Council sponsored the workshop for early researchers from UK and Kenyan universities. It was led by Professor John Traxler, Professor of Digital learning at the University of Wolverhampton.

Professor Traxler said that as well as the problems of unpredictable weather and poor food security, East Africa was experiencing an issue with increasing land-use for large-scale, export-driven mono-cultural agribusiness such as cut-flowers and salads for Europe at the expense of sustainable low-input small-scale subsistence farming.

“East Africa is also characterised by an incredibly lively and universal mobile telecoms sector and entrepreneur culture. Whilst there are programmes and agencies working at the convergence of these issues, the research base of expertise, experience and methods is fragmented across several disciplines, as is advice and guidance to policy-makers, practitioners and officials,” he said.

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