Here, an expert is always ready to help, taking calls from an office lined with reference books and files on a range of agricultural subjects, from weed control to post harvest management. If an answer cannot be provided on the spot, the expert consults a specialist and gets back to the caller.
The service, which for many years had CTA support, is run by the Centre de Documentation pour le Développement Rural (CDDR) in Yaoundé, which is part of agricultural NGO Support Office for Local Development Initiatives (SAILD). It currently receives about one thousand calls a year.
Allô Ingénieur is one of three highly successful information services that were developed through a partnership between CTA and CDDR-SAILD, and which continue to this day. After the relationship was first forged in 2001, it focused on finding innovative ways of using ICTs to supply better information to farmers and rural communities. The other two initiatives are the Question and Answer Service (QAS), which provides people with personalised answers to written questions, and the Système d'Information et de Communication Agricole d'Afrique Centrale (SICAC) website. Visitors to this site can download any of nearly one thousand dossiers on issues linked to farming and rural development in Africa. The SICAC website also acts as a useful way of promoting the services of Allô Ingénieur and QAS. Although after helping to launch Allô Ingénieur and QAS, CTA has since ceased funding these two services, the Centre continues to provide SAILD with support through publications and magazines.
Allô Ingénieur is mainly aimed at farmers, though it is also used by extension agents and other actors in rural development, many of whom are regular callers. The service works through two channels. The first is by mobile phone, with the caller dialling a number (99 41 41 41) and then hanging up.
"That way they don't pay any phone charges," explains CDDR Director Marie-Martine Yobol. "We then call them back immediately, and we either reply directly to their question by phone or, if it requires a fuller answer or we are unable to give an immediate reply, we do some research and get back to them as soon as possible." Some 40 per cent of callers receive an instant answer to their question.
The second system, which has been working for the past six years, involves people sending in their questions by email. Detailed answers given by email often draw from the dossiers compiled as part of the QAS service. To give the questions and answers greater visibility, a selection is published in the French and English versions of the popular monthly local agricultural magazine La Voix du Paysan – in English, The Farmer's Voice.
From pest control to marketing
The largest number of questions have been from people wanting to launch some kind of agribusiness or small-scale farming activity. Other inquiries have come from farmers who have encountered a problem. This may be a pest which is damaging their crops or a disease which is affecting their livestock. The scope of expertise available covers the entire agricultural value chain, and questions on processing and marketing account for a small but increasing share of the total. Some callers also want advice about what kind of equipment to buy to help them farm their land or raise their animals. Experience has shown that the highest volume of calls is in April, at the start of the farming season, when producers are planning their strategy and perhaps encountering their first difficulties. A small number of callers come from outside Cameroon, in particular the Republic of the Congo.
At the CDDR offices, two full-time staff take the phone calls and regularly check computers for new email inquiries. They have the back-up of a third person who is in charge of documentation. The experts draw extensively on CDDR's well-stocked library and online documentation centre, as well as on other online resources and a database of regular questions and answers to the Allô Ingénieur service.
Research shows that many small-scale farmers enjoy the human dimension of Allô Ingénieur. They like being able to speak to a real person and ask specific questions related to their local conditions. Most of the inquiries come from men, with fewer than 10 per cent from women. That is partly because men are more likely to be in charge of farms and to take the lead in launching a new enterprise, says Mme Yobol. "Also, many people hear about us through The Farmer's Voice and fewer women than men are likely to read this kind of publication."
"The largest number of questions have been from people wanting to launch some kind of agribusiness or small-scale farming activity."
"If we are to attract more women I think we need to develop other channels of communication," she adds. "These may be more modest but less remote mechanisms that don't necessarily involve using telephones or the Internet and that are made available through programmes that specifically target women. I think it's largely a question of raising awareness among women."
For the time being, the Allô Ingénieur mobile phone service is exclusively available to French-speaking callers, though people can make inquiries in English by email and receive answers in the same language. However, there is considerable scope for extending the service to include English, as well as to local languages. In Cameroon, around 20 per cent of the population is English-speaking and this sector is closely involved in agricultural production. To take just one example, tea is entirely cultivated in English-speaking areas. In northern Cameroon, large numbers of people speak neither French nor English and illiteracy rates are high.
"For the moment, our priority is to continue the service that we offer. We are a small team with modest resources and it is already a full-time job to handle the phone and email inquiries and supply answers," observes Mme Yobol. "We sometimes find it very difficult to keep up with the demand. If opportunities did arise to do more, we would like to extend the reach of the people we target – so that it was not such an exclusively francophone service."
Another area where there is room for improvement is in the quality and detail of the replies that the service provides, she says.
"For example, some of our replies would benefit by being accompanied by photographs and illustrations. Technology offers many solutions. For instance, when there is no one here to take a call it would be useful to be able to record a caller's question so that we can get back to them later. But the difficulty here is resources."
At CDDR, staff are scrupulous about monitoring the value of Allô Ingénieur and their other services. They can tell you in a flash how many calls they fielded in 2013 – the answer is 1200 – and the number they answered in their record year, 2010, when 1559 callers made inquiries. But perhaps the most telling evidence of the system's impact comes from the users themselves.
One of them is extension agent Moïse Bama, who writes to describe how he first heard about Allô Ingénieur more than ten years ago. Ever since, he has been a regular caller, using the information to set up projects and train small-scale producers in improved agricultural practices.
"It has never disappointed me," he says. "In my work, the service is a useful database for development. I find your advice extremely practical and in terms of the information it provides, it is much closer to the real situations that we face here than the things you can find in some books or on the Internet."
Adèle Akoulou Ze, who has a smallholding in the centre of Cameroon, has used information to combine cocoa and banana plants and has successfully diversified into rubber cultivation. Daniel Suafo, a producer from the village of Emana, north of Yaoundé, has seen his output increase dramatically since he started taking the advice of Allô Ingénieur.
"The productivity of my plots sown with maize has nearly tripled, increasing from 800 kg of dried maize per hectare to 3000 kg/ha after putting your advice into practice," he says. "I also grow haricot beans, for which I have recently started getting a very good price, using the information that you have me about marketing." Suafo has also learned to fatten his pigs using the maize he grows, and to keep a careful record of all his farming activities.
"I now farm like a professional thanks to Allô Ingénieur, which has taught me how to keep a farm management book. Now, for the first time, I can easily see if a plot is earning me money or not."