How a Mobile App Was Developed for Cambodian Farmers
Published: 15 April 2021
A project promoting south–south knowledge transfer adapted ICT-based Chinese information dissemination models to the Cambodian context.
Information services play a critical role in modern agricultural production and rural development. Improved data flow enables farmers to make informed decisions at every link in the value chain. Timely information on new technologies and agricultural innovations can help increase productivity. Relevant and accurate market information can support farmers to make targeted pricing decisions and improve profits.
Within Cambodian farming communities, there is strong demand for better, more up-to-date agricultural and market information. However, there is limited access to agricultural knowledge and information in rural areas.
Drawing on the experience of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), an AgriTT Research Challenge Fund-supported project developed an online agricultural information system for Cambodian farmers. The project’s research team reviewed contemporary Chinese approaches to agricultural information dissemination using information and communication technology (ICT); carried out field investigations on Cambodian agricultural information systems; developed a prototype mobile internet-based platform and an Android application (AgriApp); and piloted AgriApp in the field to improve its functionality and provided training in its use.
This case study is adapted from a policy brief on the project.
Integrated up-to-date knowledge systems and appropriate approaches for knowledge dissemination, utilization, and feedback are both sorely lacking in rural and farming communities in Cambodia. The latest agricultural technology and market information were unable to reach farmers in a timely manner, and their production and business queries could not be adequately addressed. As a result, farmers’ decision-making abilities regarding land utilization, production management, resource deployment, and marketing activities were not well-informed, consequently leading to low crop yields, income, and living standards.
A major challenge this project encountered was in analyzing system requirements. This was integral to obtaining a complete picture of the information needs of agricultural and farming communities, which would inform the design of a new technological tool for traditionally minded farmers.
Another challenge was figuring out how to carry out the training in the most effective way. The end users of the mobile application are farmers unfamiliar with the functionalities of smartphones and mobile applications.
In 2015, over 94% of Cambodians reported owning their own cellphone and 40% owned at least one smartphone, a 52% increase from 2014 and almost a 100% increase from 2013. Some 34% of rural residents had at least one smartphone (32% of women and 47% of men). The steep upward trend in smartphone use suggests that advanced mobile internet technologies can play a vital role in improving agricultural production and market information flows.
In recent years, the PRC has accumulated experience and good practices in applying ICT in agriculture, including in information dissemination. The project in Cambodia sought to extract useful and practical Chinese experience, especially the application of the latest mobile internet and GIS technology, and adapt it to the Cambodian context.
The project was part of the Agricultural Technology Transfer (AgriTT) Programme, a trilateral initiative between the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Government of the PRC, the Governments of Malawi and Uganda, and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA). The program facilitated south–south cooperation through the sharing of successful experiences of the PRC in agricultural development with developing countries to improve agricultural productivity and food security.
The AgriTT Research Challenge Fund supported 2-year research projects to generate new thinking and practice on technology transfer and value chain development. Each project had a Chinese, UK, and African or Southeast Asian research partner.
Consulting firm Landell Mills, which managed the research challenge fund (with UK government funding) in 2013–2017, assessed the research proposal, awarded the research grant, monitored its progress, assessed the quality of research, and approved the project when completed.
The Application of Mobile Internet Technology for Agricultural Information Dissemination in Cambodia project was implemented in two phases over a period of 2 years, between 2014 and 2016.
The research team was led by the Foreign Economic Cooperation Center, which is under the PRC’s Ministry of Agriculture, and the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute. Beijing-based SuperMap Software Co. researched the technological elements of the project while the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, UK contributed studies and academic insight.
The project undertook a comprehensive field study visit, which involved a roundtable working group meeting, stakeholder focus groups, surveys with farmers, interviews with key farmers and farm managers, a workshop, and visits to regional vegetable and rice production fields.
Information needs assessment
The initial farmer survey was conducted in two target pilot locations: Samakimeanche district in Kampong Chhnang province and Batheay district in Kampong Cham province, which were chosen by Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
Thirty farmers in each province were invited for a meeting and participated in the survey. Interviews with key farmers and farm managers explored their views on what information is needed.
Information users for the pilot were selected among farmers in villages and farm commune centers with sufficient educational qualifications and ICT skills to understand and absorb the information and knowledge. These initial users then served as information and knowledge brokers to other farmers.
Design and development
Based on the field investigations, a detailed project report was produced reviewing contemporary agricultural information dissemination models in the PRC and analyzing the feasibility of transferring Chinese technological experience to Cambodia, including assessing the system requirements for the project. The report informed the optimization of ICT-based innovative modalities for disseminating agricultural information and the development of a prototype platform and app for rural audiences. The developers tested and modified the app to make sure that it was easy for the farmers to use. The SuperMap team released alpha and beta versions of the program and installed apps in the mobile devices of pilot users.
AgriApp includes a searchable database, geographic information linked to queries, training tools, and a question-and answer service and online feedback system. All these functions are useful for many areas of crop and livestock management: pest and disease management, variety/breed selection, market price information, weather and climate information, agricultural equipment, and input supplier information.
The technologies deployed include over-the-top (OTT) instant messaging; location-based services for automatic geolocation of users and mapping; a user-friendly relational database management system; and cloud backup, all adapted from Chinese models. Data are gathered from two sources: experts, including agricultural research institutions, extension services, and marketplaces; and farmers who upload their latest agricultural experiences and supply-and-demand information.
Deployment of the system
CARDI is hosting the AgriApp system on a cloud server to enable both its technical personnel and project developers to undertake remote systems maintenance and management.
Engineers from the Cambodian Agricultural Information and Documentation Center (AIDOC), which is under the agriculture ministry, participated in the system-deployment process to learn the protocols for testing, operation, and maintenance. The ministry also selects, inputs, and issues the agriculture information to the farmers.
The ministry organized local trainers for end users of the mobile app, which is downloadable from government websites for free. Careful preparations, which included finetuning the training content for target audiences and rehearsals of training sessions, were made to ensure that the farmers learned how to use the app effectively. Each trainer was responsible for training 10 farmers or grassroots technicians, who would later assist other farmers.
The goal of this project was the establishment of an agricultural information service platform, using the latest mobile internet app technology.
The pilot project helped Cambodia to adapt the PRC’s most relevant, advanced, and practical agricultural information service models. It focused on analyzing information needs, selecting information sources, developing knowledge and information repositories, and designing and demonstrating technical tools and platforms for effective information dissemination.
By combining Chinese technologies with Cambodian data, a relevant knowledge base was created and maintained to disseminate customized agricultural information to farmers through a prototype mobile app. AgriApp also enables two-way interaction with farmers, who can send their queries to agriculture experts through the service platform as well as share information.
Most of the ICT technicians who have benefited from the systems training are fresh graduates and about 25% of agriculture extensionists who participated in AgriApp training are female. Through a training-of-trainers approach, 3,000 small-scale agricultural producers were reached.
Both MAFF’s Department of Planning Systems and AIDOC have taken ownership of the system management and are responsible for data input. A large number of data sources have been digitalized by AIDOC and DPS, and staff have the capacity to update and expand the information repository in the future. Agricultural experts and extensionists in DPS and the Department of Agricultural Extension are responsible for responding to user inquiries and providing feedback.
AgriApp was developed as a scalable model with the potential for deployment in other provinces of Cambodia and in other countries in Southeast Asia and other regions with comparable agricultural information needs. The app and business model could be incorporated within ICT programs of bilateral/multilateral development partners, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The Asia-Pacific Rural and Agricultural Credit Association (APRACA), for example, has shown interest in using ICTs in rural areas to disseminate information to farmers.
ICT services need long-term investment in digital agricultural information databases, supported by the public sector with development partners and/or through partnerships with the private sector. In the case of AgriApp, the project has delivered essential equipment, management systems, the app tool, and training guidance, enabling Cambodia’s agriculture ministry to take over ownership of its future improvement and extension. MAFF has developed an AgriApp sustainability development plan and is developing proposals for new funding, along with further extension activities.
ICT tools, such as AgriApp, are valuable to both public sector research and extension and to private sector businesses, such as product dealers, traders, and enterprises. For example, Guangxi Forword Agricultural Technology International Cooperation Co., Ltd, which is involved in the development of an agricultural promotion center in Cambodia, is using AgriApp as a tool for promoting agricultural technology extension and training and as a communication channel with MAFF and local agricultural departments. An app development strategy needs to explore the appropriate mix of public and private sector content and usage.
In addition, key factors need to be assessed before deploying ICT tools. These include the availability of affordable smartphones and low-cost and reliable internet access; the profile of the main clients (e.g., smallholders, larger commercial farmers, extensionists); the development of a clear business model—free, fee-based, or a mixture; and funding and management— private sector or government.
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