Highlight 2007: Help is a mouse click away

Monique Hunziker, responsible for Biovision‘s infonet, talks with the farmer Raphael Okoth in Kenya.

Thirst for knowledge met by a flood of information: East African farmers have long sought help for agricultural problems. Now they can find it in the "Infonet", a kind of Wikipedia for farmers. But how does this work in places that lack access to digital technology? Together with the farmers in Western Kenya, Biovision has found ways to keep up with technological development.

The trigger for Infonet came from a simple farmer in West Kenya: Raphael Okoth (pictured), a farmer in Nyabera, complained to Monique Hunziker of BioVision, that he rarely has access to help and information when he has problems with his vegetable crops. The farmer said in frustration: “I need an information pool that I can access directly at need, because agricultural advisers hardly ever find their way into the fields.”

In the ordinary workday for Monique Hunziker the problem was exactly the opposite. As a biologist with specialist knowledge in international agriculture and tropical health she was confronted with a muddled flood of information from scientific studies and textbooks. She has learned to filter the relevant facts from the sea of information, to reduce complex interrelationships to their essence and to explain these clearly and understandably. So Raphael Okoths wish fell upon open ears, especially as she had long known that countless numbers of farmers in Africa share Raphael’s problem.

Two farmers prepare their soil using information from the Infonet.

A beacon in the sea of information

In 2006 Biovision began the project Infonet-Biovision, with financial aid from the Liechtenstein Development Service (LED) and in co-operation with the E-Learning specialist Ursula Suter (Avallain AG). Goal: An internet information platform for East Africa with locally relevant information on sustainable farming, ecologically sound pest and disease control for animals, people and agricultural crops, as well as on conservation of natural resources and income advancement through ecologically compatible methods.

Project leader Monique Hunziker is aware that many farmers in Africa still do not have access to the internet, but she also knows that is changing rapidly. “Every day there are more computers all over Kenya - in internet cafes, at non-profit organisations and recently in mail centres too. We are making use of this development with Infonet.”

Infonet-Biovision is also produced in an offline version on CD, which can be used independently of the internet. Agricultural advisers and teachers from state organisations, schools and various relief organisations are also particularly important target groups. They usually have an internet connection and also conduct farmer training programmes.

Quality not Quantity

Infonet-Biovision appeals through the quality and selection of information and understandable visualisations and illustrations. Monique Hunziker and her team have conscientiously chosen from and condensed the immense flood of information to give users a clear overview. Thus the selection consists of the 150 most widespread major diseases and pests in East Africa – divided into the four areas of human, animal, plant and environmental health. “We want to enable access to locally relevant and scientifically proven information, with which the farmers can solve their most common problems”, explains the project leader. All editions of The Organic Farmer (TOF), which are especially valued by farmers for their practical tips, can be downloaded from Infonet-BioVision. As a further step, Infonet will eventually be linked up with the popular SMS advice service, so creating a communication platform for farmers and local experts.

Monique Hunziker, head of the Infonet-Biovision project, gives an overview of the sea of data.

Teamwork between researchers and farmers

In selecting and reworking the guidance and information, the project leader counts on co-operation with competent scientists from the international research institute ICIPE, in Nairobi, as well as with institutes in Europe such as FiBL, in Frick. She is at the same time in constant contact with three farmers’ groups in Kenya with a total membership of 918, most of whom are women. The members contribute local and traditional knowledge, test the comprehensibility of information and illustrations from Infonet-Biovision, test out the instructions and bring in their own practical experience. The groups are co-ordinated locally by Anne Brunste, a competent agronomist and practising farmer. Anne is also the link between the farmers in the field and the ICIPE scientists. In the next phase of the project she will build a network of farmers’ groups, NGOs and authorities so that Infonet-Biovision expands into the training of agricultural advisers and farmers. “The project ultimately stands or falls with the local people”, Monique Hunziker. She is sure that Raphael Okoth in Nyabera can access the information he needs from the computer at the local mail centre, and very soon also by SMS.