ICTs and Social Media: Tools for Agricultural Extension in the Caribbean Region
Funding for the creation of this article was provided by the W.S. (Stan) Young Memorial Communications Grant through the OAC Alumni Foundation.
Like many other industries, the agri-food industry has potential to become stronger and more sustainable when information flows freely. A local food supply chain includes and relies on many players – primary producers, government agencies, food safety departments, transport and distribution links, consumers and much more.
In recent years, developing sustainable local food and agricultural industries in the Caribbean region has been a priority for both government and non-governmental agencies; improving knowledge mobilization in the industry is recognized as a key contributor to agricultural development and innovation.
Improving the quality and delivery of agricultural extension is a crucial starting point when trying to promote more informed local agri-food systems. It is possible that promoting the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in local agricultural industries could foster more efficient and inclusive delivery of extension service, which can, in turn, lead to more self-sustaining development of local agri-food industries.
This article features the work of Prof. Ataharul Chowdhury, assistant professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada.
Information and communication technologies
Information and communication technologies, or ICTs, is an umbrella term that is generally accepted to mean all technologies that, when combined, allow people and organizations to interact in the digital world. This includes data, internet access, cloud computing, software, hardware, transactions, communications technologies and a host of other entities. It can be an extremely powerful “tool” for connecting all players along a community’s food supply chain.
Social media is a form of ICTs
Social media is a well-known subcategory of ICTs. The term social media is often associated with popular social networking apps and websites like Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. However, social media can refer to any internet communication tool that allows users to broadly share content and engage with the public (Hudson, 2020). It includes social networking sites, blogs and microblogs, online forums, discussion boards and groups, wikis, socially integrated text messaging services, videos, podcasts, and more (Saravanan, Suchiradipta, Chowdhury, Hall, & Odame, 2015).
Social media use in the Caribbean region
As individuals and communities in the region become more and more connected in the digital world, it is important to find ways to tap into these tools to promote learning and development in the industries that need it most.
Greater numbers of citizens and residents of Caribbean countries have been navigating the digital world in recent years. This is depicted through an increase in internet users and social media users.
The estimated 2020 population of the Caribbean is about 43.5 million people (Internet World Stats, 2020). In January 2020, nearly 26 million people in the region were internet users (60% of the population), and 22 million individuals were active social media users.
Though internet penetration and digital literacy in the region is on the rise, there is great disparity among nations. In January 2020, the Dominican Republic and Cuba had the largest population of internet users in the region with over 8 million and 7 million individuals online, respectively. However, The Bahamas is the Caribbean nation with the highest percentage of people online (85 percent of the 400,000 residents). Therefore, it is important to consider the local context of technological availability and infrastructural support for ICTs to become an integrated part of the agri-food sector.
Platforms used frequently in the region include Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram. Each of these have great potential to be used in unique capacities to facilitate knowledge mobilization in agriculture. Growers and extension officers could utilize text, graphics, audio, videos and pictures in unique ways to share valuable and timely information using these mediums.
Evidence of extension success using ICTs
Prof. Ataharul Chowdhury, a capacity development and extension expert at the University of Guelph, has explored the acceptance and use of social media in the Caribbean and other regions. These examples highlight the usefulness of social media for extension services. The possibility of co-learning, engagement and relationship building through social media can propel nations toward more sustainable development in agriculture, and more resilient local food systems.
“Social media is an important means to access and share information related to production, the environment and markets. More and more producers are using social media to sell their products directly to consumers. The networks mediated through social media and other ICTs play a vital roles for interaction and learning to building more resilient food systems.” – Prof. Ataharul Chowdhury
Example 1: Social Media Abroad – Bangladesh’s Department of Agricultural Extension
Starting in 2014, extension agents of Department of Agricultural Extension have been using social media to provide better extension services (Kamruzzaman, Chowdhury , van Paassen, & Ganpat, 2018). Like many extension officers, their roles include tasks like disseminating information to producers, networking in the industry and coordination of services. These agents perceived social media as a means for improving their professional performance.
Extension officers were able to use social media tools to reach a larger number of clients, to collaborate with their colleagues timely and effectively, to build a network both within and beyond their organizational circles, to share agricultural information, learn from the accomplishments of other colleagues, and a host of other activities (Kamruzzaman, Chowdhury, van Paassen, & Ganpat, 2018).
Example 2: Social Media Extension Efforts in Trinidad and Tobago
In the Caribbean region, Prof. Chowdhury and colleagues reviewed the use of social media by the agricultural extension community in Trinidad and Tobago.
The two most popular social media platforms in the country were Facebook and WhatsApp, which is true for most countries in the region. Agricultural extension communities of practice (CoPs) were clearly defined on these platforms – public, private, farmers associations and research institutions (Ramjattan, Chowdhury , Ganpat, & Kathiravan, 2020). Diverse topics were covered on each platform – livestock, hydroponics, agribusiness, crop protection and more.
They found WhatsApp, in particular, to be an effective tool for extension as it demonstrated potential to build close relationships in the industry.
Community members were able to request a diagnosis of plant and animal diseases from experts and receive timely feedback. The platform allowed growers to upload pictures and describe the symptoms, and allowed extension agents to provide real-time responses and direct members to YouTube links or other related resources to solve the problems producers were facing (Ramjattan, Chowdhury , Ganpat, & Kathiravan, 2020).
Example 3: Technology Stewardship Approach in Trinidad and Tobago
In order for ICTs and social media to become a feature of extension services in the region, agents must be effectively trained in how to properly use these tools to facilitate learning in the industry. Prof. Chowdhury and a team of researchers pioneered a new approach for capacity and leadership development for ICTs, termed the technology stewardship approach (Gow, Chowdhury, Ramjattan, & Ganpat, 2020). The study examines the first known application of the technology stewardship model to agricultural extension in the Caribbean.
Many studies recognize that there exists some level of interest and awareness in the region regarding using ICTs to improve extension services, but application is happening very slowly. The technology stewardship training intends to guide the participants through the theoretical aspect of the technology steward role, as well as allow them to work together to understand the the suitability of platforns and plan relevant campaigns.
Based on the chosen priority action and the campaign objective of each community of practice, participants in the study were able to identify ICT requirements that would help bridge the knowledge gap in the community. See table 1 below.
Table 1. Summary of small-group outcomes in-class
Community of Practice
|Priority Action||Campaign Objective||ICT requirements|
Fishers in North Eastern Tinidad
|Access to expertise||Improve timeliness of weather bulletins and life safety information for fishers||Group text and photo messaging|
|Farmers in Tabaquite region of Trinidad||Access to expertise||
Reduce costs and improve timelinessof community notifications on pest management
|Individual and group text messaging; photo sharing|
|Agricultural Society of Trinidad & Tobago||Organizing and scheduling meetings amoung members||Improve attendance at monthly meetings||Event scheduling (shared); text message reminders|
|Food Crop Farmers Association||Farmer ediucation and information updates||Improve awareness of topical issues and current events||Microblogging; group messaging|
This training is a leadership oriented approach and findings suggest it can be effective in expanding the use of ICTs among communities of practice for agricultural extension in the Caribbean and other regions.
How Extension Officers Can Use ICTs in the Caribbean
Many different forms of social media can be used, depending on the goal of the department, the extension officer or the community of practice. Jeet Ramjattan, a colleague of Prof. Chowdhury, is a knowledgable extension officer working in Trinidad. Here he outlines a few ways in which social media is currently being used in Trinidad to support farmers and promote community engaged scholarship:
- The Ministry of Agriculture’s Extension Division of Trinidad and Tobago uses Facebook Pages to share training information, provide advisory and alerts for disaster risk mitigation and a range of agriculturally related instructional videos.
- Extension agents are using Zoom video conferencing, web conferencing, webinars for reskilling and training.
- National Marketing Agency of Trinidad and Tobago uses SMS texting to share price information.
- Marketing website provides real-time pricing market intelligence and cost of production modelling.
- The Ministry’s website provides policy information regarding procedures for incentives, and regulatory services.
- Farmers associations and groups are using Facebook live to host forums and have interactive discussions. Agents can benefit by participating or hosting meetings to discuss concerns and issues.
- Smartphones are being used by agents to take pictures, make educational videos, capture information, share, upload, send and recieve emails on the go.
- Facebook is being used to ask questions, share information and experiences, and access videos and other links to assist farmers and provide timely advice.
Going forward, government departments responsible for overseeing agricultural extension in the Caribbean region should consider the benefits of using ICTs and social media as tools for knowledge dispersion.
- Faster proliferation of information and resources throughout a community.
- Faster feedback from community members.
- Potential for open communities which may promote engagement with wider players in the local food system.
- Improved relevance of service provision based on client needs.
- Cost reduction in comparison to providing in person service improved efficiency and better utilization of scarce resources.
Social media and ICTs are invaluable in this current times of COVID-19 pandemic because services can be provided virtually, thus reducing the risk of disease transmission while keeping the clientele connected with online services.
“Extension agents cannot implement ICTs in their work program if there is no support at the policy/decision-making level. Administrators and policy makers have to understand the importance, benefits and relevance of ICTs in agriculture.” – Jeet Ramjattan
Important considerations for the future of ICTs in the Caribbean:
- The necessary infrastructure must be made available i.e – mobile devices, laptops, desktops, and other hardware and software necessary for developing and implementing extension programmes. Government ministries have made some investments in infrastructure over the years, although this is limited it can be improved.
- There should be considerations for collaborations and partnership with industry stakeholders for improving accessibility, training and networking. For example, the University of the West Indies, Guelph and Alberta conducted Technology Stewardship for approximately forty extension agents. Also, the Ministry collaborates with research institutions such as CARDI, CABI, and IICA to train extension agents in various capacity development skills.
Government departments should:
- Consider the country and region’s unique standing in areas such as internet penetration rate, digital literacy, and accessible tech infrastructure among the local growers.
- Consider the context of the local community. How is social media currently being used by local producers and local extension agents?
- Seek ways to facilitate and implement in-service training for extension officers so that they can assume the role of technology stewards in communities.
“Certainly, it is of no use to say that ICTs and social media is improving the sector if the beneficiaries are unable to use the technology. Therefore it is crucial that extension agents receive training in using ICTs for training farmers and providing service virtually.” – Jeet Ramjattan
Extension agents should:
- Consider how social media can be implemented into agricultural extension work that meets local needs; What do producers find it difficult to access information about?
- Support the use of digital ICTs in agri-food businesses
- Encourage the use of ICTs by producers by dispersing important information through these platforms. Be sure to consider what platforms growers are already comfortable using.
- Consider what can be adequately taught to growers and adjusted to allow accessibility to information and two-way communication through social media.
As many nations in the Caribbean region work toward developing local agri-food industries, it is important for governments to consider improving how producers access information, and the potential for them to adapt and innovate in this current age of research.
It is exciting to think about all the ways information can be shared when growers need it most using social media tools in local farming communities. Promoting digital communication in agriculture also promotes a climate of collaboration, communication, and participation, leading to more informed and efficient methods of local food production.
Collaboration, communication, and participation. These are the elements that make up the foundation to strong local agri-food industries, and ICTs can help the Caribbean region to enhance each of these goals.
- Barzey, U. (2014, October 7). Caribbean Phone & Internet Usage. Retrieved from Caribbean and Co
- Gow, G., Chowdhury, A., Ramjattan, J., & Ganpat, W. (2020). Fostering effective use of ICT in agricultural extension: participant responses to an inaugural technology stewardship training program in Trinidad. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension.
- Hudson, M. (2020, June 23). What Is Social Media? Retrieved from The Balance smb
- Internet World Stats. (2020, August 10). THE CARIBBEAN. Retrieved from Internet World Stats.
- Kamruzzaman, M., Chowdhury , A., van Paassen, A., & Ganpat, W. (2018). Extension Agents’ Use and Acceptance of Social Media: The Case of the Department of Agricultural Extension in Bangladesh. Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education, 132-149.
- Ramjattan, J., Chowdhury , A., Ganpat, W., & Kathiravan, G. (2020). Use of Social Media by the Agricultural Extension Community of Practices in Trinidad and Tobago. AIAEE 2020.
- Saravanan, R., Suchiradipta, B., Chowdhury, A., Hall, K., & Odame, H. (2015). Social Media for Rural Advisory Services. Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services.