I almost choked on my cheerios the other morning when I ran into this amazing story in The Guardian:
Ethiopia’s farmers are flocking to a hotline that provides free agricultural advice about planting crops, using fertiliser and preparing land as part of a government initiative to turn subsistence farmers into surplus sellers.
The automated hotline has received nearly 1.5m calls from more than 300,000 farmers since it launched 12 weeks ago, according to Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), an internationally backed government initiative. The 90 lines are now taking an average of 35,000 calls a day.
This is huge. One thing you very quickly learn when you look at hunger in Africa is that farming is a knowledge industry, and lack of access to proper advice is a major stumbling block for small farmers as they try to break out of the poverty cycle.
“Extension services” – state bureaucracies set up to provide this kind of advice are often cumbersome, corrupt, unresponsive, or all three. In plenty of cases, they do little more than distribute patronage ahead of elections. Extension pilots do succeed now and again, but scale-up is elusive.
And so, shockingly, very basic knowledge on how to plant (“sow seed in rows, regularly spaced” say) fails to reach the ground. The upshot is real hunger.
Finding an implementable, efficient, cost-effective, scalable solution to the problem of how to get good advice to poor farmers is one very big step on the road to guaranteeing food security in Africa. Ethiopia may be on the cusp of achieving this.
Is the wider sector listening?