Building Trust in Technology: How an Agricultural App Is Taking Root Among Women Farmers in Nepal
This piece was written with support from Training Resource Group and contributor Christine Chumbler.
What would you do if you had developed an amazing mobile phone application with practical information that people could use to improve their quality of life? How would you spread the word and encourage people to use it? Now what if you had specifically developed your app for farmers living in rural Nepal, where women have limited access to technology? Posting to social media wouldn’t be effective. Old-fashioned person-to-person word-of-mouth contact works the best; it’s just a matter of finding the right people to spread the word.
This is a lesson USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge (WCC) learned in Nepal. From 2017 to 2021, the WCC project offered grants to organizations to close the gender digital divide around the world and allow more women to benefit from digital technology. One WCC grantee, Heifer International, partnered with Nepali tech firm Pathway Technologies to scale up an app called GeoKrishi, which provides information on crops and livestock, weather forecasts and market prices, and allows farmers to send pictures and questions to experts for quick turnaround advice.
Rural communities in Nepal are very dependent on agriculture and, given that many young men move away to the capital or leave the country looking for work, most of those working on farms are women. Difficulties arise when these farmers need expert advice about planting, harvest, disease, or how to respond to unexpected crop failures. According to a Heifer field program manager, nearly 90 percent of the few agricultural extension agents in Nepal are men, and social-cultural constraints restrict how women farmers can interact with them, which hinders the ability of these women to access agricultural information that might help them prevent crop failure or improve their dairy herd. Interactions with “unfamiliar men” are considered even more problematic when they involve mobile phones and the Internet due to the user’s perceived risk of privacy breaches. Heifer and WCC are mobilizing trusted local resources and people to distribute the GeoKrishi app and make this information easier to access, especially for women farmers.
As of December 2022, Heifer has trained more than 1,280 Digital Agricultural Facilitators (DAFs) to visit farms and introduce GeoKrishi to farmers. DAFs are often members of the local community or a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) and already have some type of relationship with the farmers. Even so, Heifer has found that it takes time to establish enough trust between DAFs and local farmers to effectively introduce new technology. As a result, Heifer adjusted its implementation model so each DAF reached out to small numbers of people to develop deeper relationships with them.
DAFs are often associated with local agricultural cooperatives, giving them additional credibility with farmers. Many co-ops are also designated as e-Chautaris, or meeting places with digital capabilities that host bi-weekly webinars on agricultural topics and demonstrate the GeoKrishi app for dozens of members. Given the low rates of Internet connectivity and digital literacy, seeing the app in use in a trusted setting, like a co-op meeting, is key to increasing familiarity and demand for the app’s services among farmers.
Local government agricultural offices can also serve as trusted sources of information. Heifer is working with local governments to incorporate the GeoKrishi app and physical GeoKrishi kiosks inside municipality and ward offices into their long-term planning and budgets. Local institutions are asked to share costs, for example, with cooperatives partially paying for smart TVs to facilitate better webinar viewings.
Involving municipal government, local NGOs, and agricultural cooperatives also creates community buy-in and demand for the services GeoKrishi offers. As many as 100 farmers visit the offices of these different organizations everyday for different services. When officials refer to the GeoKrishi kiosks or to the content on smart TVs to prescribe solutions to a farmer’s problems, the farmer becomes significantly more accepting of the mobile app. As farmers visit these facilities, the local government and cooperatives can log them into a centralized database of who’s using the mobile app, which also helps them monitor farm activity and plan their agriculture intervention activities and annual budget. This in turn creates an added incentive for government and NGO officials to adopt the GeoKrishi system and helps ensure its sustainability beyond the lifetime of this project.
One of the most effective ways to increase demand for the app is free: neighbors talking to neighbors. A farmer in Chitwan District changed a number of her farming practices based on advice from GeoKrishi. Her friends and neighbors initially laughed at her, but when she nearly doubled her corn production by delaying planting a week later than normal, these same friends and neighbors took notice. She has now helped about 50 of them download or access the app. Another farmer, who also runs a cosmetic shop, encourages her customers to use the GeoKrishi app by sharing how she used it to treat her sick cattle. These very relatable and personal examples show people the value of the app, and also reinforce the idea that women can be trusted sources of information.
Teaching basic digital skills to women farmers and providing them with sound and relevant agricultural information enables them to take a more active decision-making role in the family farm business. By boosting women’s confidence, Heifer is employing one of the WCC’s proven strategies — along with building community support and changing social norms — to close the gender digital divide and increase women’s economic empowerment. As more farmers download GeoKrishi, and the demand for its agricultural information grows, these ideas will spread further and take root — helping more women farmers gain new skills and knowledge to better support their families and communities.