03 November 2006

Exploring CTA's agricultural question and answer service

Accra, 3 November. For several years the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) has supported 'question and answer services' (QAS) to support the agricultural information demands of people in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. In recent years, this service has been devolved from CTA and QAS centers and networks have been established in about 40 countries around the world.

This week, CTA's Vivienne Oguya joined a workshop organized by GAINS (the Ghana Agricultural Information Network System) and we used the opportunity to learn more about the QAS. Being in Ghana, we also sought insights into local QAS activities coordinated by GAINS.

According to Joel Sam, Coordinator of GAINS, the CTA-supported Ghana QAS "has helped to re-vitalize the GAINS network and expand its base." With the QAS, he says, "we are able to include radio stations and agricultural extension" in our activities and reach out to rural communities. Moreover, by documenting the questions and answers (as wel as the unanswered ones) he can see usage trends and patterns that inform GAINS priorities – and he can begin to share the validated answers with other services - such as Ask FAO.

Today's QAS is much more than a bibliographic 'reference' service – it connects people with a question to an information specialist or subject expert who provide actual answers. The answers can be a document or other resource, or tailor-made advice. The questions are posed to local QAS service providers (in Ghana's case, these are members of the GAINS network) who then search out appropriate answers. Questions arrive in many forms – by letter, e-mail, fax, phone, through radio phone-ins, and through personal visits. Where a question needs greater expertise, the local QAS centre can call on the QAS network in other countries as well as CTA itself. In 2005, the QAS network as a whole answered some 7500 questions – students, researchers, and farmers were the largest groups served.

One critical success factor in such a service is the capacity of the 'answer providers' to deliver relevant and reliable information. CTA therefore works with the various QAS centers to bolster their capabilities (strengthening skills, enhancing networks, provinding information resources and databases, and speeding up workflows to improve turnaround times). This is sometimes quite challenging. In Ghana for instance, the GAINS coordination team in Accra seeks to include institutions across the country in QAS activities, drawing on their specific local and subject expertise and extending the reach of the QAS service to groups that otherwise might not be reached. This requires that the participating institutes each reach a minimum level of technical capacity, that they have reliable communication systems, and generally are committed to meeting standards in terms of quality, relevance, reliability and demand-responsiveness.

Helping the local QAS service is one of the targets CTA has set itself and Joel Sam recounts the support he has received: "finance, training, networking, and databases." This seems to be paying off. According to Vivienne Oguya, the Ghana QAS is "doing very well ... It works more and more with a national partner network who reach out to different target groups, it is well managed, and the quality of the answers provided seems to be high." She also commends its efforts to build self-sustainability into the service. The good management of the QAS is important to both sides and Sam emphasizes that the financial and reporting discipline enforced by CTA has helped to keep these activities fully transparent.

Many agricultural 'question and answer' type services are being set up around the world, making use of the Internet, e-mail and the web. The CTA-supported QAS blends various media and, in Ghana at least, it is certainly not an e-only service. Thus, partnerships between GAINS and local community FM stations are building bridges between farming communities seeking practical advice and information and researchers whose technologies are well-described in reports etc, but which need to be re-packaged and translated for local application.

Beyond bridge-building, Vivienne has an even greater personal vision for the QAS. She would really like to see how QAS services can be tracked over time and help "prove the impact of information" on national agricultural and development goals.

Some other QAS services: RUN – web-based QAS application by ZADI; eXtension (USA); United Arab Emirates ask agriculture service; Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals; Redsercotec (Chile) - see also article by Francisco Proenza (pdf).

Written by Peter Ballantyne



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