Climate Conversations - Women take on drought and pests with virtual science academy by Alina Paul-Bossuet
A couple of years ago, Mahabubnagar district in India’s southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh had one of its driest years since 1929. The region recorded 90 percent less rainfall than the norm. But the mass exodus expected when droughts cause crops to fail didn’t happen. Men didn’t leave to work in cities. They stayed put. This was partly down to a network of 8,000 highly motivated women.
The Adarsha Mahila Samaikhya organization is made up of over 560 self help groups from villages affected by drought in the Addakkal area. This women’s welfare network enabled women to start different types of income-generating enterprises. Today Adarsha women run a range of businesses including a successful restaurant, a women-only bank, a dairy farm, a handloom shop, a resource centre, a training hall and a centre for the disabled.
By working with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) using the latest information technology, these women knew when the dry spell was going to hit and had set up a contingency plan for their villages.
Adarsha women volunteer as village network assistants (VNAs) to get advance warning about the intensity and impact of drought in 21 villages in the Addakkal. The VNAs meet at the village resource centre every week to directly interact with scientists via audio and video conferencing.
They collate information on farmers’ problems in the field including photos of pest attacks and ask the scientists for appropriate solutions. This includes advice on drought-tolerant crops, cultivating practices, pest control, soil fertility and other essential interventions to get successful harvests. They then transfer this knowledge back to the farmers. These VNAs are essential knowledge transmitters given the scattered nature of the villages in Addakkal.
Rameswaramma, a 38-year-old in Nijalapur village, works as a VNA with Adarsha and recently received an award from the National Virtual Academy for her work in rural knowledge dissemination. Now that she is computer trained, Rameswaramma manages an agro-advisory system with the help of ICRISAT experts and information and communications technology. She is also helping farmers to experiment with drought resistant crops like castor (an oil bean) and she provides services like weather forecasts and information on agricultural practices and market prices.
“I know first-hand how this type of information and advice can change our lives. Last year we had a severe drought but we knew what to expect because of these drought prediction maps,” she says. “ICRISAT scientists advised us to plant millet instead of rice as it needs much less water and is drought resistant. So this time when the drought came, we still had our crops,’ she adds.
With the rise of internet and mobile technologies, a knowledge revolution is happening. To facilitate the access to information, a lot of initiatives try to connect rural communities with the global web. International development agencies are very enthusiastic about the Information and Communication Technologies for Development approach (ICT4D) and its role in educating people and improving their livelihoods.
However, many ICT initiatives do not have the expected impact on the rural poor because most projects fail to provide information that responds to the rural communities’ needs. ICRISAT, through its Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT), is responding to real time knowledge needs by training Adarsha women to communicate the problems affecting farmers in their fields directly to scientists.
These women then spread tailored solutions, such as changing the cropping system to more resilient crops adapted to harsher climatic conditions or finding ecological ways to deal with particular pests.
VASAT is a novel, cost-effective way to reach out to remote rural communities to provide real time advice for small holder farmers to succeed despite the changing climate. In coming years, ICRISAT will work on scaling up this model in India with innovative public private partnerships.
The theme for Women’s Day this year is, “Equal access to education, training, science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women”. ICRISAT recognizes the importance of women in all its research programmes, and is promoting effective ways of using science to empower rural women in the semi-arid regions of India and Africa.
Alina Paul-Bossuet is a communications consultant for ICRISAT.
AlertNet, March, 2011, http://www.trust.org/alertnet/blogs/climate-conversations/women-take-on-drought-and-pests-with-virtual-science-academy/