by Isabel Carter.
Back in 1993 the results of a Footsteps readership survey got your Editor thinking… The survey results indicated that readers were using information from Footsteps for all kinds of unexpected purposes: translating into local languages, making posters, literacy training, radio broadcasts – as well as more obvious purposes such as sharing the information through resource centres or libraries. In addition, over the years many readers had written asking for help to produce local newsletters or booklets, often in local languages – for which it was very difficult to obtain funding.
Many organisations assume that most people in isolated areas of the Third World cannot read and have little interest in printed information. Footsteps readers obviously didn’t go along with this thinking. Research was needed to examine the situation and to discover whether there was much potential in sharing information through print in the Third World.
The editing of Footsteps is a part time job. So since 1994 the Editor has been using her free time to carry out research, mainly in Uganda and Ghana, leading to a PhD – now almost finished. Many Footsteps readers have shared in the research and this issue gives the opportunity to share some of the more important findings.
The research explored information sources used and preferred by grassroots farmers. Agriculture was selected because there is even less printed material available for farmers than (for example) for health workers. There was a particular interest in discovering the views of farmers about their access to and use of printed information.
The research was in three stages:
- A postal survey of just over 200 organisations receiving Footsteps and involved in sharing information
- Participatory research with 75 farmer groups in Uganda and Ghana
- An informal survey of 95 organisations sharing agricultural information in Uganda and Ghana.
The postal survey
Detailed survey forms were sent to 414 organisations around the world. The response rate was 49%, with responses received from 49 countries. Over half the respondents were NGOs. Organisations ranged from those which were well funded and equipped (a quarter) to those with little or no income or office facilities (nearly half).
Most organisations shared information in a variety of ways, the majority (97%) using the local language.
Organisations were asked in some detail about the sources they used to obtain information. Key information sources were books and newsletters. Other sources included libraries or research stations (2%), community knowledge (2%), religious leaders (2%) and networking with other organisations (2%). Three quarters of the organisations found it difficult to obtain the information they required for a variety of reasons including: lack of contacts or resources and barriers of language or comprehension.
Newsletters, usually free, were a much valued source of information. Organisations were asked to name the two most useful newsletters received. A total of 81 newsletters were named, of which 31 were in local languages. Footsteps was mentioned by 60%; other newsletters named by more than 10 respondents were Ileia, AHRTAG (now Healthlink) and Spore.
The Ugandan and Ghanaian farmer groups selected had formed themselves and ran their own affairs. Groups established by NGOs or extension agents were not included in the research. All groups visited were over 50km from large cities, many in more remote areas. The research was participatory, combining group discussion, seasonal calendars, ranking exercises and time lines.
Many groups visited were well established, highly motivated and with clear objectives. Some were struggling. A total of 75 groups and over 1,200 members were included in the research which took place during 1996 and 1997. Average group size was 24 members.
Groups were asked about their main aims. The three most important aims were seen as income generation (by 80% of groups), improving agricultural production (69%) and the support of group members (32%).
The main research exercise involved ranking activities to find out the main sources of agricultural information for group members – both the sources they used most and those they trusted and preferred. The results for this key exercise are shared on pages 8 and 9.
The results show that groups depend either on information that comes from group members or from individuals within their own community for well over half their sources of new ideas. Nearly all groups mentioned their desire for more outside information in any form, preferably via sensitive development workers, but also for printed information, particularly if it is in a form which is easy to share within a group.
Most groups were well organised and gave priority to sharing and discussing new ideas within meetings. Group support was very important in providing a safety net, allowing members to share, experiment and try out new ideas. On the few occasions when a whole group were able to visit demonstration projects, this was of great benefit – both in the rapid use of the new ideas gained and in building group relationships. Clear links were observed between access to information and the growth of confidence in group knowledge and understanding, which led to some groups sharing agricultural information outside the group and some producing locally generated materials on agriculture. Good access to information was found to contribute towards empowerment within farmer groups.
The role of animators
Animators were observed within most successful groups. These were group members and were often people who had originally helped to form the group, though they were now rarely the leaders. These were people with enthusiasm, motivation, openness to new ideas and the ability to inspire other members to take action. Animators usually had higher levels of literacy and were often the source of new ideas within the group. Animators were often a major factor in the success of groups and encouraged the flow of new ideas in agriculture.
Within farmer groups there was a high demand for printed information, even though many members were unable to read, revealing that one or two individuals able to read within a group meant that the whole group could benefit from information. Only 4% of individual farmer group members owned an agricultural book. Magazines, books and newspapers were carefully stored and widely shared between members. Through this sharing…
- 9% of members had reasonable access to printed information (in groups where over half the members owned some kind of printed information).
- Over 56% had limited access (less than half the members owned some kind of printed information).
- 35% had no access to printed information about agriculture at all.
Organisations providing printed information
95 organisations were visited in Uganda and Ghana. Staff were asked about how they shared information and in particular about any agricultural information printed. Few of the larger organisations visited gave priority to meeting the needs of grassroots farmers for printed information. Their efforts were instead directed towards networking with similar organisations through newsletters. Organisations who did try to provide information for grassroots farmers, often in local languages, tended to be smaller, poorly funded, national organisations where limited resources prevented them from producing more printed information.
The role of committed individuals with an interest in producing printed information was found to be vital. Such creative people are able to hold onto their belief in the value of the final product through all the tedious stages of production.
Implications for producer groups
All organisations and individuals with the potential to produce printed agricultural training information should carefully consider and understand their target audience. They should be aware that this audience will be severely limited if only those with an international language and academic education are targeted. Printed information, whether on agriculture or other subjects, is a very cost-effective and sustainable way of sharing useful ideas. Such information also brings many benefits in encouraging literacy – particularly if it is made available in local languages.
There is a need for many more organisations to target their materials for a much wider audience. Recommendations include:
- producing materials appropriate for a grassroots target audience
- using local languages whenever possible
- carefully checking and targeting writing styles in order to provide useful information for those with limited literacy skills
- designing materials imaginatively to encourage those with little reading experience, using good design techniques and culturally appropriate illustrations.
The production of printed information with good visual content, preferably in local languages, targeted at grassroots farmers is a challenge which needs the combined expertise and energies of farmers, linguists, researchers, editors, illustrators, extension and development workers and animators.
NYAMATETE WOMEN’S GROUP, UGANDA
The exercise investigating how farmer groups trusted and used different sorces of information was a very significant part of the research and it may be helpful to look at the example of one such group.
Nyamatete Women’s Group is located about 20km south of Mbarara in southern Uganda, some 5km from a tarmac road. The group is small, with eight members, mostly women. Male and female members often argued about their thoughts on the importance of information sources. When discussing the role of elders as a source of new ideas, the women commented ‘Even in these days? Do we really need them?’ There was a lengthy and heated discussion on whether advice from friends or the radio should be trusted more. ‘If your friend comes and asks you ‘have you planted beans yet?’ you rush out and plant them.’
‘But are our friends experts or people who know little?’
‘People on the radio are experts…’
‘But do these experts on the radio know you better than your friends? Can they ask you questions?’
When they could not agree, they took a vote and friends won overwhelmingly. Extension agents were not included in their choices and when asked they commented, ‘Yes they are there, but they don’t work here.’
In their final decision, reached after much lively debate, they put forward observation and experience and friends as their most valued sources of information, followed by a Christian development worker who had helped the group start, the local preacher and elders.
- How do people in your community get new ideas and information?
- Are there preferred sources of information people would like better access to?
- How could access to these sources be improved?
- Is useful printed information available in your local language?
- Are there any organisations that might be interested in working with you to produce this?
- Could you network with other groups to improve access to information?