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March 28, 2011

Phone cartoons bring know-how to poor farmers

by Emeka Johnkingsley

Animated cartoons watched on mobile phones could be the way to get health and farming messages across to peasants and poor smallholders, say researchers.

They could help people who can't read tackle anything from increasing their cowpea yields to avoiding exposure to cholera, through an initiative launched this month (1 March).

Scientific Animations Without Borders, spearheaded by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States, produces narrated videos for mobile phones. The production costs of the animations are low, and the narration can be recorded in local languages and dialects.

"This is a very different paradigm from some other current development projects, where US-based educators are flown to another part of the world, interact with people in the field for a few weeks to several months, and leave," said Barry Pittendrigh, a member of the animations team and an entomology professor at the university.

Pittendrigh said: "Our short-term goal is to provide useful educational materials that educators can download off the Internet and place on their mobile phones. In those cases where the trainers or farmers have cellphones with Bluetooth capability, the videos can be transferred over to these individuals."

The first videos demonstrate safe methods for controlling or eradicating insect pests from cowpea in five West African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, where millions depend on the cowpea for their livelihoods, according to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

These methods use locally available materials. For example, in one video, a farmer uses fruits from the neem tree, Azadirachta indica, to create a liquid insecticide that can be sprayed onto crops.

Manuele Tamo, a scientist in charge of IITA's Benin branch, said: "We are working to translate the videos into the different languages of the five West African countries. We also want to try and capture the different cultural accents in these languages."

One challenge, he said, involves the use of mobile phones by women.

"What we discovered in Benin and other places is that the phones used by women farmers are not theirs. When they do have phones [of their own], these can hardly play videos or do not have the Bluetooth technology for transferring them."

Some local groups are working with his team to enable easier transfer of the videos.

"We are also looking at the possibility of contacting cellphone companies in the region to see if they can send videos as MMS [multimedia messaging service] messages," Tamo said.

The team is building an open access library of videos that can be distributed around the world through email or the project's website, SusDeViki (Sustainable Development Virtual Knowledge Interface).


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