Farmers and extension service providers in Rwanda use mobile phones as a communication tool for extension and advisory services (EAS). Farmers who own mobile phones have achieved better access to the extension service providers. The mobile phone reduces costs and time consumed in accessing information. Farmers explained that the cost of visiting the local extension office by motor-taxi was higher than using a mobile phone to call extension service providers.
The mobile phone is mostly used by farmers to request for information, which makes the EAS a more demand-driven service that allows for two-way communication between farmers and extension service providers and other related stakeholders. This results in receiving up to – date information on agricultural activities and weather updates that have an impact on the farmers’ decision making. Farmers who own smartphones, use the camera to take photos of crops and share with extension service providers, agronomists and other farmers. In case they observe any problem with the crop (e.g. pest damage), they consult and receive speedy guidance from the WhatsApp group, and/or from experts in other districts.
The use of mobile phones has strengthened the EAS but the benefits of this technology are limited to the farmers who have access to mobile phones. Poverty and age are the two main contextual factors affecting the use of mobile phones. Poverty prevents farmers from owning a mobile phone, buying airtime, and charge the phone because of the lack of electricity. One extension service provider attributed the inaccessibility to farmers because their phones were switched off to save the battery charge. By turning off the mobile phones to save power, farmers risk missing important and urgent information or visits by the extension service providers.
Gender equality is key in the agricultural sector in Rwanda, as women are key in the agricultural economy. However, gender roles at the household and community levels are a contextual factor that challenges the use of mobile phones in EAS. Women tend not to call the extension service providers even if they own mobile phones. Due to traditional gender roles and a patriarchal society, men are in charge of the farms and often communicate to extension service providers. These factors influence women’s ability to receive first-hand information as it comes through their husbands. Therefore, women farmers in Kirehe and Nyamagabe districts benefit less by owning mobile phones.
Rwanda is working towards being a high-tech country by improving the agricultural sector through ICT-based tools. Overall, the use of mobile phones has strengthened EAS in Rwanda, by increasing accessibility, timely exchange of knowledge, demand-driven, improved two-way communication and reduced cost of accessing the service. The use of mobile phones however appears to benefit male farmers more than women farmers – an issue that needs to be addressed by EAS providers as well as the by the InnovAfrica project that targets women farmers.