From smart phones to smart farming: Indigenous knowledge sharing in Tanzania

Many people believe communications technology helps the developing world by allowing people to link up with the ‘West’ and be given information and knowledge. It is often people in the developing world with the knowledge, and what technology can instead do is help them unlock that knowledge and share it with one another.

Eugenio Tisselli is a PhD student, teacher, artist and mobile technology project developer. In this latest Digital Diversity he explains how mobile communications can help isolated communities create self-supporting knowledge-sharing networks. This is what Sauti ya wakulima, a group he initiated, have been doing in rural Tanzania. Whether it’s figuring out the best way to grow maize or tracking changing rain patterns, mobile phones and the Internet can help those who, in one of the farmer’s words, “have a lot of things to say, but no means where to talk about them”.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Eugenio Tisselli

On January 2011, my colleagues and I traveled to Tanzania to conduct a series of interviews with farmers living near Bagamoyo, with the purpose of engaging them in the creation of a collaborative knowledge base about the effects of climate change, using smartphones as tools for observation and a web page to gather the recorded images and sounds. My mind was full of questions at that time. Was it technically possible? Did the farmers know about smartphones and the Internet? And, most importantly, would they be willing to get involved?

Answers arrived quickly. Accompanied by Mr. Hamza, the local extension officer, we spent three days visiting farmers in the area. We found out that cell phone connectivity was robust enough to access the Internet from the farms. Most of the farmers owned not one, but two or even three cell phones. However, they were not familiar with the Internet. They had heard about it, but had never opened a browser to look at a web page.

After our visits, Mr. Hamza gathered the farmers at the nearby Chambezi agricultural station so we could explain the project to everyone and ask whether they were interested in participating. Despite the fact that none of them had accessed the Internet, they quickly understood that the images and sounds uploaded from the smartphones would not only be visible to them, but to anyone who visited the project’s web page. After deliberating, the farmers voted unanimously in favour of trying out the new tools. We gave the project a name: “Sauti ya wakulima” – “The voice of the farmers” in Swahili.


Mr. Hamza (far right) and the farmers looking at their online knowledge base in Chambezi. Photo: Sauti ya wakulima


This is how Sauti ya wakulima works. A group of five men and five women gather every Monday at Chambezi. There, they use a laptop with a mobile Internet connection to view the images and listen to the sound recordings they uploaded during the week. They also hand out the two available smartphones to other participants, turning the phones into shared broadcasting tools. The smartphones are equipped with GPS modules and an application that makes it easy to upload content. So far the farmers have used them to record geographically localised observations about changes in the climate, and to interview other farmers.

As soon as the farmers became familiar with the phones and the web page, they began to use them to learn from one another. One of the farmers, Mr. Haeshi Shabani, was having trouble growing maize. He didn’t know why his yields were so poor until he saw a picture of a maize field, uploaded by one of his colleagues. He realized that he was planting it in the wrong season, and that he was not growing it in terraces in order to prevent water logging. So, with this new knowledge, he tried again and, a few months later, Mr. Shabani got his first successful maize harvest.


Mr. Haeshi Shabani in his maize field. Photo: Sauti ya wakulima


When his turn to use a smartphone comes, Mr. Ally Issa uses it to mostly do interviews. He visits nearby farmers and asks them about their problems with crops, pests or water, and what they do to overcome them. After taking a picture of the interviewee and recording his or her voice, he adds the keyword “mahojiano” (“interview”) and uploads the interview to the web. On the first days of August, the Chambezi group travelled to Morogoro to attend an agricultural show. Mr. Ally Issa took the smartphone with him and interviewed almost a hundred farmers from different regions in Tanzania, making this a valuable contribution to the online base of farming knowledge.

The farmers at Chambezi not only struggle because of insufficient infrastructure and unreliable markets for their products, but also face challenges such as changing rain patterns, drought, scarcity of underground water and new pests and plant diseases. However, they know that by sharing their knowledge on how to cope with these problems they can find ways to overcome them. They also hope that, by communicating their observations to extension officers and researchers, they can participate in the design of new strategies for adaptation.

On my latest visit to Chambezi, I asked the farmers what they thought about Sauti ya wakulima, and how it could be improved. Here are some of the things they said:

“The project has brought more cohesion to our group here at Chambezi.”

“The project helped me learn that phones can be used for other things besides calling people, and that computers can also be used to solve problems. They are not just a fancy thing for the rich people in towns.”

“We have to include people from different areas, so that we can also learn from those who are far away, doing different things.”

“Very few farmers know about the Internet, and there is a need to provide more training and resources.”

“Farmers have a lot of things to say, but no means where to talk about them.”

We are working to find a sustainable way of shaping Sauti ya wakulima based on what the farmers would like the project to be. There is still a lot to do but, so far, an encouraging lesson has been learned. Sometimes the knowledge needed to solve a problem lies dormant within the community. It just takes a spark to bring it to light. The images and voice recordings gathered by the farmers who participate in Sauti ya wakulima may just be that spark.


Mama Rehema Maganga using a smartphone to interview Mr. Hamisi Rajabu. Photo: Sauti ya wakulima


Sauti ya wakulima was founded by the North-South Center of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and has received support from the Department of Botany of the University of Dar es Salaam.

Eugenio Tisselli is the initiator and developer of Sauti ya wakulima. He is a computer scientist, artist and teacher. Since 2004 he has collaborated in mobile communication projects for communities at risk of social exclusion in different parts of the world. He was an Associate Researcher at Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris, and a teacher and co-director in the Masters program in Digital Arts at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is currently studying a PhD at Z-Node, the Zurich Node of the Planetary Collegium.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

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Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.