Qualitative evaluation of smallholder and organic farmer decision support tool (DST) and its improvement by inclusion of a disease management component.
Historically, South Africans, particularly small-scale farmers have had little support and hence lack tools and information when faced with production decisions. Information plays an important role in enlightening people, raising their level of knowledge and in turn improving their standard of living and participation in decision making process. Research shows that Information Communication Technology (ICT) like Decision support tools (DSTs) plays an important role in systematic dissemination of information in agriculture, thus improving the quality of farmers’ decisions. Decision support tools provide up-to-date data, procedures and analytical capacity leading to better-informed decisions, especially in rural areas. A body of research is emerging around issues of effectiveness of DSTs for farmers in the developed world. However, few studies have focused on issues around effectiveness of these tools for farmers in the developing world, particularly for resource-limited farmers. This study set out to evaluate the effectiveness of a new DST for organic and small-scale farmers with a group of extension officers and researchers in KwaZulu-Natal. As an extension to the DST, a crop disease management component linked to the DST was developed. The study also set to evaluate the effectiveness of the crop disease management component. Extension officers and researchers were purposively selected for this study because both groups play a major role as far as organising and disseminating information to organic and small-scale farmers is concerned. This study identified key measures for effectiveness of DSTs and crop disease management guides using literature from the study. Two frameworks for measuring effectiveness were developed to evaluate the effectiveness of the new DST and its crop disease management component with the extension officers and researchers. Focus group discussions were used for data collection. The frameworks were used as a base for the focus group discussions. Focus groups were conducted to explore and establish whether in the light the groups (extension officers and researchers), the new DST and its crop disease management component are effective. Results from the study revealed that extension officers and researchers felt that the DST and its crop disease management component are effective since they meet key measures for effectiveness identified in the framework. The groups agreed that the DST and its crop disease management component are relevant to small-scale farmers. They also agreed that the DST has the ability to improve access to information for small-scale farmers. Lastly, they also agreed that the DST and its crop disease management component are transparent (meaning flexible and user friendly) for small-scale farmers. Some of the areas for improvement identified by the groups included a need for information on pests and more diseases for the DST and the crop disease management component. Although the groups felt that both the DST and crop disease management were effective, they strongly recommended a need for another study that will aim at developing a pest management component of the DST as this was clearly requested by groups in this study. Results of this study showed that half the respondents felt that the DST was easy enough to be used by small-scale farmers without help from extension officers, while the other half believed that small-scale farmers will still need the help of extension officers to show them how to use the DST. Government and other relevant institutions need to provide appropriate training for these farmers, making the DST useful to them.
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