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Agritools: research journalism going beyond reporting and informing

By Paula MontañàAgritools is the result of the committed and passionate work done by the Italian journalist and researcher Elisabetta Demartis, videomaker Sandro Bozzolo and two web developers. It is an online platform that displays the stories of innovative projects that take advantage of cheap Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) like simple mobile phones to improve agriculture, fisheries and livestock in Africa. Agritools provides a meeting point for people working in these sectors, giving visibility to their initiatives and building connections between them. It was launched in April and is a great example of an in-depth journalistic project that wants to do more than only report and inform.

Before going to the ground, our grantee Elisabetta first did two research trips to the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Afterwards, she travelled to Africa with Sandro Bozzolo to meet the young protagonists of the story. They spent several weeks in Senegal, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana, looking for revolutionary projects and collecting insights of people involved.

The European Journalism Centre interviewed Elisabetta to learn more about the unique characteristics of Agritools and its main goals.

What kind of stories do you publish on Agritools?

We focus on local projects that bring innovative solutions through the use and implementation of ICTs to improve the primary sector, the most important sector in Africa. These initiatives are led by young people who really want to help their country and believe in bottom-up local development. There are projects or startups working in all the stages of the agricultural value chain: from buying the seeds to logistics and commercialisation. We want to create networks and increase the visibility to projects that help the farmers to improve their businesses and their lives.

How does the Agritools platform work?

Agritools gives people with innovative projects the possibility to send us their stories. We publish these on an interactive map and on the crowdsourcing page. On the map, we locate all the projects and also present short videos of our research trips in Europe. For example, we have a story of a 23-year-old man who built an application to help farmers and, on this very same page, the user can also find a video showing the testimony of an expert from FAO.

Agritools is the first platform in the world trying to build a network of people who work in the sector and collecting and showing the reality of all these innovative projects through a research journalism project.

How are mobile and digital technologies directly helping African farmers and improving agriculture?

These farmers usually live really far from cities, behind the market dynamics. It is hard for them to get the information and the means to properly sell their products and to get loans from the banks. To fight these problems there are projects like Farmerline, which is a sort of call centre that provides practical tips and information, in various local dialects, directly to the farmers. Then there is Ensibuuko, an SMS software that helps the management of the Saving and Credit Co-operatives (SACCOs) in Uganda and facilitates the access to credit for farmers.

Another example is Sooretul, an interesting Senegalese e-commerce platform created by women that gives visibility to and promotes the consumption of local products traditionally processed by women. Sooretul combats a widespread paradox in Africa: many people tend to believe that exported products are better than the local ones. For instance, many people do not buy milk produced in Africa, but drink Nestlé milk powder instead.

Besides promoting the existence of these projects among African people, why should European countries know about them?

Europeans tend to have a bad perception of Africa. We think that we have to export our ideas, resources and technology to help people in African countries. This is the wrong approach. We can exchange many things and learn more from African initiatives than we think, also because we have a lot in common. Africa is a huge continent full of innovative ideas, we just need to collaborate, interact more and be more open-minded.

You say that Agritools is a “research journalism” project. What does that mean?

ICT applied in agriculture is a huge topic and it is actually making a difference in Africa. That is why I wanted to do research on and increase the exposure of initiatives like Farmerline or Sooretul. Our goal with Agritools was to do something useful, to do development in a way—not just journalism. Agritools wants to raise awareness among African people about all these innovative opportunities to solve local problems and push the primary sector forward.

How did you engage with the topic of ICT in the African primary sector?

Last year, I lived in Senegal for six months. I was doing research on how ICTs are helping the primary sector and I discovered that young people were leading this agricultural revolution. They are young leaders that struggle to go to university and put in an incredible amount of effort to build new solutions for Africa. But their stories were not known, neither in Africa nor in Europe. Media just show the negative sides of Africa. When I applied for the IDR Grant Programme, I knew I could not only do research but also spread the word about ICT in Africa. I just said, “let’s try it."

What have you learned by creating Agritools?

We realised that when doing development reporting one needs to look at existing problems in-depth, and build trust with the local people. But this is not easy. I also learned that, as a development journalist, you have to be actively involved in what you are doing in a way that activists are, rather than being a mere storyteller.

Interview by Paula Montañà

Paula Montañà is a project coordinator at the European Journalism Centre and a Media Culture graduate student at the Maastricht University. She holds a Bachelor degree in Journalism from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and has published articles in the Spanish newspaper El País as well as in other smaller printed and online publications.

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