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Virginia Tech researchers use texting to boost international development

February 3, 2017

Farmers in Ecuador
Virginia Tech researchers and students found that farmers in Ecuador are more likely to adopt conservation agriculture practices if they get text message reminders.

Like most people, Elli Travis uses her cellphone to communicate with family and friends.

However, for Travis, a former graduate student in the Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, cellphones are much more than just familial communication devices.

During her graduate studies, Travis used mobile device technology to promote economic development as part of a USAID-funded research project in Carchi, Ecuador. Travis graduated in 2015 and is now and economic development specialist for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development.

Working with Assistant Professor Catherine Larochelle and Professor Jeff Alwang, both in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Travis designed an experiment to test the effectiveness of using text message reminders to increase farmer knowledge and their adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.

“The aim of the project was to promote techniques that use less harmful pesticides, which protect the environment and the health of workers and consumers while still providing fruitful yields,” said Travis.

Larochelle said the best solution was the easiest one.

“We need to find cost-efficient ways to teach farmers about techniques that promote community welfare. Turns out, everyday mobile technology could have a role to play,” said Larochelle.  

As an international development economist, Larochelle researches cost-effective ways to teach and promote the adoption of sustainable agricultural techniques to farmers in the developing world.

“Knowing that other industries have had success using text messages as a cost-effective way to disseminate information, and with cellular coverage on the rise around the globe, testing its effectiveness within our development initiatives seemed like the next logical step,” said Larochelle.

The team selected Carchi because of its history of heavy pesticide use, high literacy rates, and almost universal cellphone ownership.

To assess the effectiveness of text messages to farmers, the team analyzed knowledge and adoption rates of newly taught agricultural practices among two groups of farmers – those who received text message reminders and a control group who did not.

Both groups of farmers attended the same full-day training session, where they learned a number of agricultural methods to manage pests and diseases without the use of harmful chemicals. In the 10 weeks following the training, only the first group received text messages with reminders and information about the agricultural methods taught during the session.

Results showed that farmers in the text message group had higher knowledge and adoption rates of the presented methods than the group that did not receive the post-training text messages.

“Our study clearly showed that text messages have great potential for spreading adoption of complex agricultural technologies,” said Travis.

However, further experiments are needed to fully understand the use of text messages in promoting agricultural development, specifically the spread of complex agricultural technology.

As Larochelle continues to search out ways to stimulate economic development, she looks forward to pursuing more text message projects and seeing how this everyday technology could change the way people around the world view the relationship between agriculture and technology.

Written by Jillian Broadwell

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