Currently there are many interventions to promote new communication technologies in Sri Lanka. Governments and donor agencies are directing massive amounts of funds to promote Information Communication Technologies which are highly dependant on the use of Internet. Development organisations too extensively use ICTs for development. But apart from that there is very little awareness about the potential of ICTs among other sectors. One such sector that can be benefited by the use of ICT based tools is paddy farming in Sri Lanka. Indigenous knowledge available within this sector, that can be revived using ICT based tools.
Paddy is a sub sector that was seriously affected by the tsunami. Practical Action under its 'Rebuilding livelihoods affected by Tsunami' programme planned to provide diverse production and marketing options to affected paddy farmers through introduction of high demand organic paddy production and improved marketing options. For this purpose 'Practical Action' invited The National Farmer Federation for Conservation of Traditional Seeds and Agricultural Resources (NFCTSAR) to work as a partner to provide inputs for improving the livelihoods of farmers.
Practical Action is an organisation that demonstrates answers to the problems of poor and marginalised communities through appropriate technologies and approaches. The definition of appropriate technology includes not only the physical infrastructure and machinery but also the knowledge, skills and the capacity to organise them. Further, appropriate technology also builds on local knowledge while adding on new knowledge to adapt it to suit to the prevailing conditions. Practical Action also has a wealth of knowledge and experience in working with small scale agricultural processors in Sri Lanka. NFCTSAR consists of small scale paddy, spices and vegetable growing farmers of twenty districts in the country. The main purpose of this organisation is to promote cultivation of traditional varieties of paddy using organic cultivation methods and thereby conserve indigenous traditional paddy varieties.
The task for the project was to test and promote suitable options on paddy cultivation which address the problems of specific and particular locations, set up support systems that increase market opportunities, and reduce constraints of small-scale paddy producers in tsunami affected areas. In a previous study that Practical Action has embarked on, indigenous seed varieties revealed that certain paddy seed varieties are resistant to saline conditions. A major problem faced by many paddy cultivators in tsunami affected areas was intrusion of saline water to paddy lands. Therefore, the aims of NFCTSAR and Practical Action are promoting indigenous paddy seed varieties, and rebuilding livelihoods of tsunami affected paddy farmers seemed to be the most appropriate answer. Further, governmental organisations too requested Practical Action to revive paddy cultivation in abandoned, and fallow paddy lands upon learning about the findings of the study on indigenous rice varieties.
NFCTSAR and Practical Action have the task of mobilising and providing training to farmers on cultivation of traditional paddy suitable for their locality – in collaboration with Agriculture Department and sharing of information related to organic paddy production.
The project team used the methodologies generally employed by any development organisation to communicate to communities. To initiate the work the project team had to attend to number of things, from identifying the problems and needs of small scale paddy farmers to creating awareness about the indigenous cultivation practices. Several meetings and discussions with communities and other service providers such as the Agriculture Department were held. In order to communicate with small-scale farmers, the meetings were held with farmers and subsequently a consensus with the farmer communities was reached about NFCTSARs approach.
A recent initiative of the project team has been employing ICT based communication strategies to reach small scale farmers. These ICT based communication strategies involved the production of two videos. One video is a compilation of stories from field visits done by NFCTSAR and Practical Action staff to locations, where indigenous varieties are being cultivated, and with interviews where farmers relate their experiences. The second video has all the relevant technical information to sufficed the needs of farmers who want to start cultivating indigenous rice varieties. The information in the second video consists of components on soil fertilization, two cultivation methods, traditional technologies, pest management, indigenous spiritual customs etc.
In this project too, like any other organisation which is involved in rural development, meetings and discussions with farmers had to be conducted in the village temple or the community hall. While having the initial discussion and creating awareness, the video that has a compilation of the small scale paddy farmers' experiences in growing indigenous varieties, is shown to the community members. Watching farmer communities actually cultivating indigenous varieties and benefiting from it helps to create an interest among the audience of farmers gathered. Further, while raising awareness on indigenous rice varieties, this video raises the image of the organisations facilitating the process. A definite question that is often asked subsequent to this video show is “We need to know technical information about cultivating indigenous rice varieties?”
To make knowledge on indigenous paddy cultivation methodologies, technologies available in a format, which are more appealing and attractive to the users, NFCTSAR produced a video with inputs from professional video producers. This video contains information on soil fertilisation technologies, Sri and Kekulama cultivation methods, traditional technologies, pest management techniques, indigenous spiritual customs etc. Both these videos have been fantastic tools to create awareness and generate interest among farmers which otherwise took considerably a long time.
The process employed previously by the project team in the awareness creation methods were to distribute among participants newspaper clippings that had featured the work carried out by NFCTSAR by introducing and promoting indigenous paddy cultivation methods. Generally, meetings with farmers to create awareness were held in places like the village temple or the community hall where it is convenient for communities to gather. When we distributed paper cuttings that featured farmers who had adopted indigenous paddy cultivation practices one of the problems we faced was that a few members in the audience could not get the opportunity to read and some of them not being able to read and understand. The other issue was the lack of appealing quality in the newspapers distributed. Further, this process takes a lot of time.
Although, people are convinced of our capacity, they do not feel that they themselves can do it. In order to address this gap, we thought we should use multi media, although the process is not easy in remote locations that do not have the necessary infrastructure. We showed them the video which is a compilation of paddy farmers growing indigenous rice varieties. When given this opportunity, community members in the audience started questioning about the process. “They ask about the variety, how long does the plant takes to mature etc” said Hemantha Abeywardane reflecting on his experiences of working with the paddy farmers to promote indigenous cultivation methodologies. Hemantha works as a project officer for Practical Actions project on Organic paddy cultivation. Explaining further about the process, Hemantha stated that “the number of questions generated from this session helped them to realise the importance of having a video that could answer some of the technical information needs of cultivating indigenous paddy”. Therefore, subsequently a professional video producer was commissioned to come up with a product on the information and inhouse experiences.
While a good foundation has been made about the importance of indigenous paddy cultivation methods from the discussions and by the video, the next step involves detailed presentation of the technologies. Subsequent to this, farmer societies who had gathered for the meetings, after discussing among themselves, submit a list of farmers who would like to grow traditional paddy to the NFCTSAR and Practical Action representatives. Explaining futher, Hemantha stated that “although telecast was used, it could not have the same impact with the audience as the multi media”. However, using multi media in many locations becomes a problem, when a particular location does not have access to electricity. There have been various efforts by the government and number of other organisations to introduce and promote ICTs to villages. Further, there are a number of centres too which are well equipped with ICT facilities but are of hardly any use to the villages except for providing telecommunication and photocopying facilities. Since majority of the rural population depends on paddy cultivation as their main livelihood, linking these types of interventions with ICT centres can make the centres relevant to communities in rural locations.