Farming in the digital age: Malawi shares best practices with Flanders


During the government of Flanders’ Stakeholders Consultation, Malawi’s Farm Radio Trust talked about keeping in touch with rural farmers

What’s App for agriculture

Farmers in the southeast African country of Malawi have a unique way of getting and sharing essential information. An organisation called Farm Radio Trust sends out text messages to small-scale farmers, along with providing a call centre and radio announcements.

The programme director of the non-profit organisation was in Brussels this week for the Flemish government’s Stakeholders Consultation. The biennial event invites Flanders’ development partners to share experiences and best practices.

Co-ordinated by the foreign affairs department, the Stakeholders Consultation took place at the government’s administrative headquarters in Brussels. It brought together both Flemish and international partners in the development sector.

The meeting revolved around the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which provide a framework for the political agendas of UN member states until 2030. The workshops showcased good practices that could lead to concrete action.

One-shop stop for advice

Malawi is one of Flanders’ three development partner countries. Agriculture and food security is a priority for Flanders, which explains the enthusiastic support for Farm Radio Trust. Flanders contributed €1 million to the project for the 2014-19 budget period.

“As agriculture is bound by the seasons, we adjust much of our services accordingly,” explains Farm Radio Trust’s programme director, George Limbika Vilili. “We offer advice on how to improve production, the harvest and post-harvest management. Much of our reporting concerns the weather, both long-term evolutions and the 10-day forecast.”

The organisation also offers tips on pricing and getting products to market. In the past, explains Limbika Vilili, much of this info was provided by workers who visited the farmers in person. But using other forms of communications has proven much more efficient.

I realise that we also have to support farmers with other challenges, beyond those related to agriculture

- George Limbika Vilili

“Radio is an important tool, and we now work with 18 radio stations in Malawi,” he says. “We set up a programme called ‘Doctor on Air’, in which an expert explains how to protect crops against a specific pest or disease. The topics of the programme are selected on the basis of the questions we receive at our call centre.”

About 100,000 farmers have called us Farm Radio Trusts helpline. “We also send weekly SMS messages to the farmers on, say, weather and market trends, and videos via WhatsApp.”

Farmers with adequate internet access can download information from the organisation’s website and social media channels and spread messages to colleagues in more rural areas, with patchy or no internet. “We are currently working on a study to assess the impact of our services and ways we might improve it,” says Limbika Vilili.

Climate change challenges

That makes sense, as needs are also changing. Climate change, for instance, is having an impact on the country, which counts about two million small-scale and subsistence farmers.

“There are now prolonged spells of drought in the country, when crops fall victim to several pests and diseases,” explains Limbika Vilili. “There are also new diseases threatening our crops that have come to Malawi from abroad, often from Latin America.”

The reliance on international markets, he says, is another big problem “because the demand in other countries for certain products is not very stable, which can mean that farmers get stuck with excess supplies”.

Following the Stakeholders Consultation, Limbika Vilili says that one of the things he heard that made an impression was the importance of a holistic approach. “I realise that we also have to support farmers with other challenges, beyond those related to agriculture. We should set up more services that improve the life and well-being of farmers as a whole.”

Photo courtesy Farm Radio Trust/Facebook

This article is the second in a three-part series on Flanders’ Stakeholders Consultation