“Agriculture research and development lack tools and method to communicate for impact”

Photo by: Mabalengwe Agriculture

The outbreak of Foot and Mouth Diseases (FMD) and novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) seriously played questions into the nature of using indigenous languages to proactively communicate to smallholder farmers.

An average smallholder farmer in South Africa is over 55 years old with limited education level. Also, co-creation of innovations and co-ownership implemented on the ground interventions requires active participation by the beneficiaries; and this active participation requires two-way communication (i.e. feedback loop).

Rox Venter, an author of the book ‘are some official languages more equal than the others’ notes that not only is a person’s mother tongue embedded in a person’s psyche, “but it also had deeply rooted connections with a person’s culture, religion and even his/her political and world views.” Compounding the situation further, the realm of agriculture and development practice is laded with jargon which is normally employed in a particular communicative context and may not be well understood outside that context.

It therefore results that smallholder farmers do not farm in English but in their own mother tongue. Further, it results in low adoption rates of innovations and unsustainable projects. The insistence to package and communicate agriculture, mainly research and development results, in English at all times is disconcerting. 

Research by academia (e.g., university students) and government officials often rush to farm dwellings and farmers interviewing them in their own indigenous languages mainly to satisfy ethical requirement but often falls short produce those results in English. Disappointing, those farming communities will never hear of those results.As an evidence that rural and farming communities are over researched and short-changed, one farmer from Amajuba in Kwazulu-Natal said “These kids are sent here to collect data, but never come back to tell us about their research outcomes. Who knows, by mere feedback and talking to us about their results, we could have learned something or changed our farming methods to become successful”.

Typical set up during data collection

There are pockets of communication best practices which are ready for scaling. Pointing to one best practice, as an example, he said the National Red Meat Development Programme by the National Agricultural Marketing Council, collected data over years from various provinces and districts, but at least gave them feedback. 

“Today, we understand red meat value chains, we are able to know which feed is suitable under which conditions, the average price an animal should ideally collect and importantly understanding the market structure” he said. 

The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy analysis Network (FANRPAN) has developed comic books (see ATONU Super Girl Adventures weblink) with key nutrition messages aimed at helping primary school children to learn about nutrition. As a successful pilot, the nutrition comic books were printed and made available to school nutrition clubs in 19 schools in Ethiopia and two schools in Tanzania. The comic books have been translated into Swahili, Amharic and Tigrigna. 

Use of images can be another useful approach. The Agriculture Research Council (ARC) uses brochures in the form of ‘infotoon’ to communicate best farming practices enhancing the usability of the information and effectiveness research results dissemination.

In 2011, the Department of Arts and Culture introduced the South African Languages Bill with the aim to “provide for the regulation and monitoring of the use of official languages by national government for government purposes; to require the adoption of language policies by national departments, national public entities and national public enterprises.”

A thorough look at organised agriculture websites, research outcomes and critical announcements are communicated mainly in Afrikaans and English. Is it the reason why Afrikaans speaking farmers were far ahead?

But more importantly, the authors behind such research work should be lauded, as translating a thesis or research report from English to Afrikaans takes considerable time. Such authors understand clearly, the impact research outcomes have on Afrikaans speaking farmers.  

Government officials and university graduates are doing a disservice to smallholder farmers in not translating research results into indigenous languages. 

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