Supporting sustainable farming in Sri Lanka

(Edmonton) A team of University of Alberta researchers will use existing technology infrastructure to engage with farmers in Sri Lanka and help them share information that could improve their quality of life.

Gordon Gow, a researcher with the Faculty of Extension, says agricultural extension services are always challenged by lack of resources in countries like Sri Lanka. For example, he says, there are not enough extension officers and often they have limited access to resources such as the Internet, making it challenging to mobilize knowledge in rural communities to help ensure food security and safety through sustainable farming practices.

But Gow and colleagues at the U of A, along with another from the University of Guelph, have a plan that would benefit farming communities in both Sri Lanka and Canada.

The idea, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, also received seed funding from the U of A’s Kule Institute for Advanced Study, which supports socially responsive and engaged research.

Gow and his team, including researchers Naomi Krogman of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences and Mary Beckie of the Faculty of Extension, recently presented the partnership development plan during a Kule Dialogue event. Central to their effort is connecting people and ideas.

“What we’re hoping to do over the next three years is develop research capacity in both countries to look at how low-cost communication technologies can be used to enhance knowledge mobilization in the agriculture sector,” Gow says. “Having access to communications technology is a way to increase the possibility of connecting farmers to knowledge they need to have in the field, particularly about sustainable agricultural practices.”

Gow says technologies such as mobile phones and radio broadcasting are suitable for their approach. He says although Internet access is usually sparse in rural areas of developing countries, Sri Lanka is ready.

“Sri Lanka, like many developing countries, has very high cellular coverage—98 per cent of the country is covered and 87 per cent of the population have access to or use a mobile phone. And farm radio broadcasting is also a common practice there.”

Gow says the approach will enable famers to create social networks and knowledge management systems—a network that will provide practical as well as scientific knowledge.  

“One of the things we commonly see in similar kinds of projects is connecting farmers to market prices, in near or real time, using mobile devices. By knowing the going rate of their crop, they’re in a better position to negotiate with the middleman,” he says.

“The scientific knowledge might be about less input-intensive forms of pest control or safe ways of dealing with pests. But there’s also what we call indigenous knowledge, which is farmer-to-farmer knowledge, and that’s looking at ways to use technologies to connect famers with each other and to connect knowledge from farmers back to the experts.”

By the end of the three years, Gow says the project—which also involves universities, governments and non-profit organizations in Canada and Sri Lanka—will have helped to address two pressing global issues.

“Sustainable agriculture and food security are global issues that affect Sri Lanka and Canada, and the fact is that knowledge and knowledge mobilization is central to this objective of achieving food security and sustainability,” he says. “Communities would have access and can use these technologies now and become part of a global knowledge common, contributing to that pool and drawing from it.”