Radio And SMS Help Cassava Farmers Adapt To Drought

In her home in Janga village in Kibaha district, on the coast of Tanzania, Rehema Mwamchela looks at her fields, where she has planted a mix of peas, sweet potatoes, and cassava. But many of the plants will not survive because of the harsh sun. Inevitably, she will have to water the drought-tolerant cassava seedlings so they don’t dry out.
The 38-year-old mother of three says that the drought in Tanzania has continued for yet another year, and is affecting many farmers in her area. She adds, “Soil moisture is most important for seed germination and growth. I always think about watering the plants.”
Mrs. Mwamchela is a member of the Mshikamano farmers group. Through the group, she learned watering techniques from cassava farmers from Bagamoyo. She is also learning new techniques to adapt to the drought by listening to the radio and from SMS messages.
Her farmer group is working on a cassava demonstration plot in Janga village in Kibaha, about 70 kilometres from Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania.
Rajab Salum is another farmer in the group. He says the team learned about hand watering from the Bagamoyo group, through KilimoYakinifu (Informed Agriculture), a radio program aired on Uhuru FM. He adds, “We learned about the group, we visited them, and found out that because of [the] prolonged dry spell, they water their cassava seedlings.”
The farmers also learned a bottle watering method, in which farmers place plastic bottles or containers beside the plants. They drill small holes in the containers to release water slowly and gradually, and in small amounts.
Mr. Salum adds, “We have shared this good news with Umoja and Mshikamano cassava farmers, and we thought of watering our tender cassava plants. But we don’t have fresh water sources around the field.”
Their one-and-a-half acre demonstration plot is close to the Mkalamo River, but the water is too salty to use for watering the cassava plants.
In coastal Tanzania, cassava is a cash and food crop. But many farmers do not know how to adapt their practices to the recent drought. The Mshikamano and Umoja groups are sharing best practices over the radio. Farmers are also receiving text messages with tips on new practices.
The messages are drafted by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Kibaha Sugar Research Centre, and CABI, an international NGO. NeemaSonje is the extension officer in Kibaha district. She says that farmers receive messages with information about activities during the crop cycle, including field preparations, collecting disease free-seeds, weeding, seed preparations, and harvesting.
The SMS messages also share information about pests and diseases, such as whiteflies and how to identify and remove infected cassava plants. They also discuss farm preparation, including tilling the land and how to plant cassava.
Fred Tairo is a researcher with the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Dar es Salaam. He explains that cassava mosaic disease is caused by several viruses commonly known as cassava mosaic geminiviruses. Cassava brown streak disease is caused by the cassava brown streak virus or the Uganda cassava brown streak virus. Whiteflies transmit these diseases to symptom-free plants from infected plants in nearby fields.
Mr. Salum explains how the farmers protect their cassava from diseases. He says, “We look at the colours and the leaves … if they are brown … it’s cassava brown streak disease. We uproot and destroy the stock immediately.”
From the radio program, the farmers have also learned how to mill cassava to make foods like chapatis, cakes, biscuits, and bread. They have also learned how to prepare seeds and soon they will start seed businesses to earn more income.
Mrs. Mwamchela says that farmers have acquired substantial knowledge, but they are challenged by the prolonged drought that is causing crops to fail. In order to expand cassava farming, she says, they need water.