To complement my public report on our recent WF/BBC Ghana trip, I’d like to tell in more details the story of my encounter with Kutcho, the Adawso plantain farmer we interviewed as part of the Digital Revolution series. I’ll try to put an emphasis on his challenges and how I hope WF will be able to help people like him.
Kutcho is an independent farmer from Ghana, he’s about 55 years-old and he owns 10 acres (about 4 hectares) of land near Akropong/Abiriw, a small town three hours by bus, north-east of Accra, in the Akuapem hills region.
We first met in the Abiriw Community Center on Sunday morning. The plan was that he would guide us back to his farm a few miles south of Abiriw in the afternoon. Since we both had some time before lunch while Tim and Aleks (BBC anchor for the series) were discussing with a group of students in the PC room next door, we used a free terminal connected to the Internet and played with maps and satellite photos for a while, trying to locate his farm, or the road to Accra, or showing him my house in Europe.
Although he’s originally from around here, Kutcho has only been an independent farmer for a few years, after having worked in large cities and abroad for most of his life. His goals for the rest of his life, as he told me later that day while we were waiting together for the day’s end in the BBC bus, is to live a simple life, close to nature, with family and friends nearby, and also of course be a good farmer, using performant techniques.
As a principle, he always tries to diversify, and always grows several crops in parallel during the year: corn, plantain, papaye, etc. That gives him more work and requires more knowledge, but it also lowers the risk associated with monoculture, of course. Here’s a short video of some of his fields.
Kutcho likes to come to the community center on a regular basis, mostly to look for information on the Web related to his job as farmer, but it’s a bit far for him to come whenever he needs or wants to, so he only spends some time online when he gets to the city.
The Mobile Web is of course a solution to his problem, since he has a mobile phone like most people nowadays, even in Africa, but more importantly, as he puts it the following short video of a side-interview we did that day, he likes contents with figures, videos, photos, and not much text, that explain irrigation techniques, harvesting timelines, better use of chemicals, etc.
Illiteracy – the inability to read or write – is a relevant topic everywhere on the planet, but particularly in Africa where lots of people are still insufficiently educated. We should probably call them “non-literate” rather the more socially loaded term “illiterate”, since being able to read and write in a given language is often not relevant for them, especially if it’s not their mother’s tongue. Most people speak a very good English in Ghana, in addition to their local langage (e.g. Akan), but few people can read administrative or technical english for instance, with long sentences, acronyms, or lots of numbers mixed with text in long paragraphs.
It is very important that we do not consider as inferior or ignorant people that prefer pictures and rich media to understand a particular point (e.g. when to start cutting wild grass, depending on the crop, the amount of sun, rain, etc). If we are to improve or replace (when it’s missing) the education of another farmer or baker, we need to re-create the experience of live training as best as we can, and integrate voice and video as naturally as possible,
Today’s challenge for someone like Kutcho, who’s already aware of the potential of the Web, is to access “rich” content (in the sense media-rich: images, videos, audio) related to his kind of agriculture (tropical fruit), without leaving his farm location if possible.
Of course when we talked about open social networks, open data, he’s also attracted by the ability to use the Web to communicate and express his needs to a larger audience, as well as to help others, and potentially also to use special applications like tradenet.biz to find better rates for the transport of goods and their resale (even though he already relies on his cell phone for business contact, which is already a big change compared to 10 years ago where there was nothing but a few fixed lines for the entire valley).
What we learned with this trip is that the directions we’ve been taking with our first WF program goes in the right direction: we need to work in parallel on both the infrastructure (make the Mobile Web platform a reality, partnering with operators, ngo, and train developpers to give data access at a reasonnable cost for the local population) and at the content level (in their language, using graphic and sound to complement the text, using community input and output, nice interface to government data, international data, etc).
The architecture of the Internet in independant layers, and the architecture of the Web itself separating the device capabilities from the nature of the content itself, are both enabling such an incremental and parallel approach: we can start working on content (our expertise is there) and partner with groups working on improvements at the lower level (IP, transport, etc) so that our effects add up to eventually improve the Web end-user experience.