A plane drop is also a communication device!

February 20, 2009

Olufemi Bolarin, the lanky farmer and suit-and-tie-wearing agricultural lecturer from the University of Ilorin, situated smackdab in the middle of Nigeria, is very keen on promoting science through the media. Iliorin farmers grow it all: maize, yams, millet and other cereals, leafy greens, citrus fruit and palm trees.

But which media? There are, for example, 133 newspapers in Nigeria, the most populous of countries on this vast continent.

Dr Bolarin went through copies from 1996 to 2005 of four English-language national newspapers, Punch, Tribune, New Nigeria and Daily Time (the first two are privately-owned, the last two government-owned) to see how much coverage was of use to farmers. The 50-year-old from the university’s extension and rural development department didn’t use vernacular print media, local papers or electronic broadcasting such as radio or television.

There’s a certain amount of sympathy for anyone trying to conduct academic work in Nigeria, given the difficulties of the environment in which researchers operate. It really mucks up your ability to conduct a useful comparison when the military junta then running the nation closed down the private newspapers, doesn’t it? And we’re not even going to talk about the electricity failures and the water shortages…

This father-of-three (twin girls Fumibi and Funmilola, and a son, Syi, and teacher wife Joyce) personally was not impressed with the fact that about 60 per cent of the editions had no agricultural research reporting. Nor was he impressed with the type of agricultural research that was published, as much of it was “skewed” towards obediently reporting on policy announcements made by political bigwigs. Very little of the reporting, he said, was helpful to farmers trying to increase their food production.

But a rowdy question and answer session resulted, based to a large degree on his conclusions, was waiting for Bolarin and the session chairperson, fellow Nigerian and broadcaster Diran Onifade from the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Why was Bolarin’s conclusion controversial? The Nigerian government, he concluded, “should force all national newspapers to carry agricultural news in a column.”

That set off Christina Scott, Africa news editor of SciDev.Net, who is old enough to have been thrown into police cells in an effort by the then South African government to force her to carry ”approved” news.

She pointed out that once any government has the right to force media to carry particular material, “a dangerous precedent has been set, and government can force media to do just about anything.” She also pointed out that although Nigerian agricultural researchers publish frequently in peer-reviewed journals, they’re practically invisible on the internet and few journalists are able to contact them easily. And the snobbery of Nigerian researchers who ignore local reporters (but respond to queries from London) is a big problem if they’re claiming that their research is going to be of benefit to locals …locals they can’t be bothered to communicate with via local media!

She also pointed out the risks of simply assuming that newspapers are (and want to be, and are capable of being) an extension of agricultural extension officers. And noted that farmers may not be big users of newspapers. So the session concluded with a recommendation that agricultural departments might well want to consider sponsoring agricultural columns but that other techniques, ranging from phone-in radio shows to cellphone SMS communications, be considered as well. As Zimbabwean audience member Dr Taurai Imbayarwo of the South Africa-based Africa Science Trackers project pointed out, he used to read the agricultural leaflets for his illiterate granny in Masvingo: they weren’t delivered by post or hand. A plane drop is also a communication device!

Christina Scott, SciDev.Net

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