Listening to Farmers’ Voices: An Interview with Eugenio Tisselli Vélez

By Jenna Banning

Sauti ya wakulima (“Voice of the Farmers”) is a collaborative, multimedia database that brings together the knowledge and experience of farmers in the Bagamoyo District in Tanzania. The project was started in March 2011, and is currently being sponsored by the North South Center of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and supported by the Department of Botany of the University of Dar es Salaam and the Z-node research initiative of University of Applied Arts in Zurich.

Farmers who benefit from the Sauti ya wakulima project. (Photo credit: Sauti ya wakulima)

Using a laptop computer and smartphones, five men and five women gather weekly in Chambezi to document their daily practices, record their observations, and interview other farmers. The information collected is then published to a research blog website, which is accessed by the participants during weekly face-to-face meetings. This information is also available to researchers, agricultural officers, and policy-makers, thus helping to shape action around agricultural issues.

Eugenio Tisselli Vélez helped to initiate Sauti ya wakulima, and is currently the project’s general coordinator and IT person. He recently took the time to speak with Nourishing the Planet about Sauti ya wakulima and the lessons the world can learn from these African farmers.

The value of using technology to assist farmers and agricultural practices has only relatively recently gained attention. How did you become involved?

My involvement in Sauti ya wakulima is the fruit of two convergent interests. On one hand, I have always been interested about food and sustainability. I have studied this topic for some time, and I greatly value small-scale agriculture as a feasible and sustainable way for feeding ourselves in the future. On the other hand, during the last 7 years I have collaborated on projects that help groups use mobile phones and the Internet to express their issues and share their experiences. In 2011 there was the possibility of starting a new project with farmers in Tanzania and mobile phones, so I just went for it.

What inspired you to initiate the Sauti ya wakulima project? What role do you currently play?

In the beginning, I knew very little about the specific situation of agriculture in Tanzania. I began learning about it by reading reports, but the real inspiration came when we visited the fields. During an intensive week in 2010, we visited many farms in the area of Bagamoyo and interviewed the farmers. It was clear that something was changing: all of the farmers told us that the short rain season had practically disappeared. There was much less water in general, and their wells were running dry. Because of this drought, new pests and diseases were appearing. That’s when it became clear to me that a multimedia tool that allowed farmers to communicate their observations on climate change through images and voice recordings would be useful. Sometimes we can understand complexity much better if it is narrated by those who are in its midst. I was also very encouraged when I saw the great familiarity with which the farmers had adopted and appropriated mobile phones as a tool for their practices.

Why did you choose to work with the farmers in Chembezi? Did they contact you, or did you approach them?

We first made contact with Dr. Flora Ismail from the Department Of Botany of the University of Dar es Salaam. Our sponsor, the North South Center of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, had worked with her before. Dr. Ismail is currently overseeing a number of research projects that are being carried out in pilot plots at the agricultural station in Chambezi. We approached the farmers who periodically gathered at the station and presented the project to them. They already knew one another since their farms are all in the area; some of them have formed a cooperative that manufactures and sells coconut oil. This became a very important factor for our project, because the farmers were already engaged as members of a community in Chambezi.

Before Sauti ya wakulima, how was agricultural knowledge spread in the Chembezi area? Has the government ever played a role in assisting farmers, i.e. through agricultural extension agents?

There is an agricultural office in Bagamoyo, which serves farmers in the nearby areas. They provide extension services, information and are also very active in the development of hybrid crops which are more resistant to drought or pests. Mr. Hamza Suleyman is the extension officer for the Chambezi group. Through his research, he has developed a variety of cassava with greater water efficiency. He is seen by the farmers as a reliable and friendly source of information, and is also the coordinator of Sauti ya wakulima. Every Monday, Mr. Hamza meets the farmers at Chambezi and, among other things, he uses his laptop and his 3G modem to browse the project’s website together with the farmers. He also assists the farmers on how to use the smartphones, and sees that the two available ones are shared equally among all.  Extension officers are not only giving agricultural advice to the farmers, but also teaching them some Internet basics!

What have the farmers shared with you about their experiences with Sauti ya wakulima?

Farmers have used and shared the smartphones to create a body of multimedia documentation. Initially, we suggested the farmers use the phones to publish images and voice recordings of their observations related to changes in climate. However, they were not limited by this initial request, and soon they began to appropriate the tools and publish other things. In a recent interview with the farmers, they expressed their satisfaction with the project, and described it in their own terms. For some, the project had been a good way to strengthen community bonds, as they find themselves talking about issues that they hadn’t discussed before. They discovered that their peers held important fragments of agricultural knowledge which were probably latent. Because of this discovery, they see Sauti ya wakulima as a tool for mutual learning. But this process of learning has not been limited to the exchange that happens within the Chambezi group. The farmers have used the smartphones to interview other farmers who are not within the group, expanding thus their social network. They have even showed Sauti ya wakulima in agricultural shows at Morogoro [a city in the southern highlands of Tanzania] and Dar es Salaam [the country’s capital]. One of the participants said that the project made them proud, because other farmers perceived them as “being very advanced”. And they were also satisfied with their newly-acquired knowledge about ICT. A woman from the Chambezi group said: “I have realized that fancy phones and computers are not only for the rich people in towns. They are also tools that can help us.”

What have been some of the biggest challenges and greatest successes? Have you been surprised at all by some of the results or aspects in this process?

The main tangible result of Sauti ya wakulima is the online, multimedia knowledge base created by farmers. The project’s main focus, as expressed by the farmers themselves, is that of mutual learning. In this light, a number of important learning experiences have taken place. For example, one of the farmers realized that he was not planting maize correctly because of a picture taken by one of his colleagues. He changed his technique and had a successful harvest. An experience like this might be considered as a small success, but I think it points towards very bright possibilities. If the project could be expanded so that it could involve more farmers in different areas, the knowledge base and its potential as a source for learning would greatly increase. And that is precisely our biggest challenge, to expand the project and make it sustainable.

What do you see for the future of technology in agriculture? 

I hope that we can all learn from the African farmers. Our ways of feeding ourselves are unsustainable and are, in fact, contributing to the degradation of our ecology. We must not only return to farming techniques which are more respectful with the environment, but we must also give small-scale farming a central value within our societies. Since the Industrial Age, we have systematically devalued small-scale farming, and have thus turned agriculture into an industry and a business. Clearly, this can’t continue. We must literally return to the land. Sauti ya wakulima hopes to make visible the knowledge held by the farmers in Bagamoyo, so that we can also learn.

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