Virginia Tech researcher discovers use for text messages in international development
December 21, 2016
Like most students on Virginia Tech’s campus, Elli Travis uses her cell phone to communicate with family and friends.
However, for Travis, a former graduate student in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, cell phones 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.
Working with Assistant Professor Catherine Larochelle and Professor Jeff Alwang, Travis designed an experiment to test the effectiveness of text message reminders in increasing 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 health of workers and consumers, while still providing fruitful yields,” said Travis.
“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 cell phone ownership. Factors which, combined, made it an ideal location for the text message trial.
To assess the effectiveness of text messages to farmers, the project 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 trainings, 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,” added Larochelle, “while these results provide an exciting opportunity, more experiments are needed to fully understand the factors that could hinder or favor 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 you and I, and farmers around the world view the relationship between agriculture and technology.