Sylvestre Ouedraogo is leading a Burkina-based regional movement to use information technology to spur the development of decentralized knowledge networks used by small farmers. These initiatives also ensure more energy efficient and dependably networked computers in rural areas, and SMS linked database information systems for small farmers.
The New Idea
Sylvestre believes that the first key to success, especially in the area of small family farming, is to build transparent and accessible knowledge networks from the ground up that shift the focus of information aggregation to farmer groups. This allows small farmers to easily and instantly articulate what they are farming, the size of their farms, and the challenges that they face. Using these platforms, farmers link directly to resources and markets, as well as effectively plan their work. A recent strategic element of Sylvestre’s work has been to build computer skills confidence among ten of the most transparent, effective, and widespread farmer-related organizations in Burkina Faso. In several of these organizations, he has taken the next step to creating decentralized networks that integrate computer-based and mobile platforms, allowing member farmers to acquire regular updates and solicit information from each other and from their associations. Sylvestre is also integrating capacity-building into his work. He has a Wiki with technical experts as contributors, writing on seed selection, crop cultivation, animal husbandry, and other farm-related disciplines that have increased in size in the last 12 months to 400+ active members, including people from Mali and Senegal.
Burkina Faso is ranked among the poorest countries in the world, and as a result, decisions about investing in digital architecture cannot overlook the important role of the government. To direct the government toward the most effective route of action, Sylvestre has submitted a set of recommendations to overhaul the way information about agriculture is gathered and disseminated. Considered controversial by some, Sylvestre believes that it is only a matter of time before accelerating social and economic forces lead the government to implement more efficient, up-to-date, and transparent ways of working with small farmers.
The government’s approach to agriculture in Burkina Faso was originally designed as a centralized system providing inputs to small farmers and the government as a purchaser of staple crops. This approach required detailed knowledge of what and when farmers planted, farmer fidelity in selling to the government, (i.e. regardless of the market price), and confidence in the government’s prescriptions about what constituted best practice.
Recently this strategy has faced severe challenges. Burkina Faso’s agriculture is largely based around small-scale farming, and the government does not have an extensive grasp of what farmers are planting and when. As a result, when there are seed shortages, there are widespread stories of seed sent to the wrong farmers. Rather than risk losing seeds, farmers and their families often simply prepare them for raw consumption than for proper cultivation.
Other challenges require more drastic measures than shifting government seed distribution strategies. Burkina Faso is bordered by seven countries, and has a limited ability to monitor the flow of agriculture traffic across its borders. Though there have recently been food shortages in Nigeria, a relatively wealthy country as a result, buyers simply cross one of the adjoining countries to purchase the food they want at prices much higher than would be demanded in the local market; thus, accelerating local food shortages.
Another challenge is related to the shifting weather patterns across the region. Under French colonization, legislatures created this system based on the assumptions that the region of cotton in the center of the country would remain stable. With desertification, cotton has disappeared from the central region and farmers in the north and central regions are facing constant fluctuations in weather. The existing support system to farmers does not accommodate the creativity and flexibility necessary for farmers to survive these conditions. The result has been an erosion of the government’s ability to respond effectively to the needs of small farmers.
Sylvestre’s initiatives are grounded in creating a decentralized computer server located in rural areas in Burkina Faso. This server is designed to ensure that, in case of a range of possible interruptions or problems, all up-to-date agricultural information and data will continue to be independently accessible by small farmers and their associations.
Sylvestre also encourages the emergence of new knowledge networks, and broadened grassroots access to resources and opportunities across the sub-region. For example, until now, a mango producer in Gaoua, a southern city in Burkina, has not had online access to a wide range of offers from buyers from any number of its neighboring countries. Without up to date information including photos or other video information, buyers and sellers have not had pertinent information, on what, when, and how many products are available. With the knowledge system tools Sylvestre is introducing, it will be possible to create efficient, user-rated online systems for the purchase and sale of these products across the West African sub-region.
Sylvestre’s next big challenge is to create customized farmer knowledge of solutions. This knowledge will reflect his and his team’s experience with farmer groups which would evaluate farmer knowledge and needs by the size and by the location of a farmer’s landholding. At the moment, Sylvestre envisions creating a series of 1, 5 and 10 hectare acre modules around which farmers might usefully organize learning communities.
When Sylvestre was very young he was involved in a Christian youth volunteers club which was the early years of the Boy and Girl Scouts. He enjoyed planting trees, and he made a small business out of selling hand made toys such as cars to other children. He also helped his mother make hand-sewn clothes. At the age of 13, with no support provided other than school enrolment fees, his father sent him to Ouagadougou to attend middle school. At the time, he struggled to find his way, but convinced the school administration to give him room/board and small jobs to pay his fees. Sylvestre joined a very active science club and through this found a group of curious people who enjoyed using the scientific method of experimentation.
At the University of Ouagadougou where he studied math, Sylvestre worked to pay his school fees and room/board. In his spare time he set up a black and white processing lab on the campus and began experimenting with the first computers available at the university lab. After graduation, Sylvestre initiated a computer club modeled on the science club he had participated in during secondary school. The first members of his computer club recently graduated university students. The club spent their time inventing new and engaging ways to teach people how to use computers.
In 2003 Sylvestre and his team were approached for help to increase computer literacy by several of the leading citizen organizations dealing with women’s issues and farming in Burkina Faso. What followed was what Sylvestre described as a three year “initiation” into farming, in which the team designed new ways to approach digital literacy. At the same time, Internet use and mobile telephone technology were becoming increasingly available. With experience and vision, Sylvestre and his team realized they had a historic opportunity to improve the lives of small farmers, and they decided to focus on creating a technological platform mobilizing on-the-ground solutions for rural farmers.