The Challenge of Poor Literacy
“Every meeting we have farmers who cannot read,” Catherine Nyongesa says. As a One Acre Fund field manager, Catherine is responsible for overseeing the field officers who deliver One Acre Fund’s comprehensive service bundle to farmer groups over the course of the season. “I visit one site every day, which means five farmer sites a week, and there are always farmers who cannot read there. Out of a group of 40, I consistently find three or four farmers who are unable to read at all.”
The literacy rate in the countries where One Acre Fund works averages just above 70 percent. The majority of the remaining 30 percent who are unable to read reside in rural areas. Since the earliest days of One Acre Fund operations in Kenya, we realized that in order to help smallholder farmers boost their productivity and generate permanent gains in farm income, our trainings would need to be comprehensible even to those who were unable to read and write.
A Closer Look At Our Training
We believe that providing smallholder farmers with access to comprehensible, up-to-date information about proven agriculture techniques is an essential weapon in the fight to end to global hunger. Advances in agriculture technology— like fertilizer, for example— have been around for decades, and have helped millions of people in many countries improve agricultural productivity. Yet these simplest of innovations are still totally out of reach for many smallholder farmers living in remote areas of East Africa. As a result, these farm families and their communities remain food insecure.
Though our training materials evolve and change with the products we offer in our loan package each season, they always include two key elements: a practical, hands-on component, and picture-based handouts to illustrate technical instructions.
A practical, hands-on section, is a part of every agricultural training delivered to farmers by field staff. When farmers attend the weekly trainings One Acre Fund provides, they first receive the agricultural information verbally. After the lesson, farmers are then asked to participate in practicing what they’ve just learned out in the field. This means actually going to a nearby farm and having the trainees demonstrate what they have learned, such as the proper spacing for sorghum seeds, or how to use a PICs storage bag to correctly minimize post-harvest losses.
“When I just train someone using words, they still might not get it.” Catherine says. “I often find that in the initial training, the farmers don’t fully understand everything. Then we go to the practical component. It’s really useful to watch farmers practice, because there they make mistakes, and I can correct them to make sure they really have learned what we are teaching.”
Our Training Handouts
After hands-on practice, picture-based handouts are another safeguard measure for ensuring farmers can understand what are often very technical instructions. One Acre Fund field staff across all countries of operation use illustrations and photo-based handouts to show farmers visually all the steps involved in processes related to planting and harvesting.
All handouts use visual references farmers are familiar with and have access to. For example, to show farmers in Burundi how deep three inches, we don’t reference a ruler or measurement unit. Instead, we show that their bean seeds should be buried in a hole roughly as deep as their finger is long. In Kenya and Rwanda, farmers learn to properly micro-dose and space fertilizer in their fields using bottle caps and nails as volume and distance measurement units, and the picture-based handouts for these trainings feature these everyday, household items.
“It is important to use familiar items for accuracy,” Catherine says. “You cannot ask an old mama to use a ruler because she cannot read it. She can, however, understand using a stick the length of her arm. When farmers understand the trainings, then they won’t make mistakes planting or using our products, and this means they’ll have better harvests. If they don’t understand well and go to plant, they may miss a step and then not harvest so well, so we really want to make sure they understand everything.”
On average, farmers who enroll in One Acre Fund’s program experience between a 50 and 100 percent increase in income on every planted acre, and generate an average dollar gain in farm income of USD $135. While effective trainings are only one aspect of our model, ensuring ALL farmers, no matter what their education level, clearly understand how best to use the improved farm inputs we deliver to them, can mean the difference between hunger and plenty.