Knowledge bazaars

Getting information the "last mile"

People need knowledge so they can help themselves to solve problems and get out of poverty, but reaching isolated people in poor rural communities can be especially hard.

To meet this challenge, Practical Action has developed the gyaner haat, an innovative model of decentralised knowledge centres.

The government of Bangladesh, with the support of the UN Development Programme, has established some 4,500 information centres across the country to give people greater access to various e-services and information.

In a pilot project in 30 of these centres, we established the Gyaner Haat (literally, knowledge bazaar). They are often located in a room as part of the local council office and work best near crowded places, such as markets, schools, colleges, council or NGO offices and micro-credit centres.

On a day-to-day basis the haat is managed by an entrepreneur who generates enough income to keep it going. They usually do this through selling ICT services, photocopying and similar activities.

From each haat, a network of around 12 extension workers reach out to the community, gathering people's questions about agriculture, fisheries and livestock, and spreading knowledge and skills about best practice – particularly when it comes to the use of technologies. The extension workers are self-sustaining because they also sell value-added services like crop spraying or animal vaccinations.

The Gyaner Haat approach has four main features:

  • Advice on its own isn’t enough – training, repair maintenance and some physical supplies, such as seeds and vaccines, are also needed to ensure that the advice is effective
  • Rural technology extensionalists (RTEs) are the key local drivers of our knowledge service, directly helping the people to solve their problems
  • Multimedia knowledge materials – such as audio or videos – help communicate to an illiterate audience
  • To ensure long-term sustainability, a knowledge centre should generate its own income, so that it can continue to operate without external funding

Practical Action’s technical enquiry service (Practical Answers) collects questions from the grassroots and develops multimedia content based on the most frequently asked questions. These are in Bengali and made into audio-visual materials.

Practical Action’s Bengali knowledge website has been developed to be a reliable source of contents on location-specific problems on agriculture, fisheries, livestock, market system development, waste management, housing and eco-sanitation, and this can be accessed through the Gyaner Haats.

One centre can provide services to at least 2,500 households in between 10 and 15 villages. A farmer, who gets information and services from an extension worker, will excahnge this knowledge with other farmers, and the Gyaner Haat continues to operate as a technical ‘backstop’. In this way, technology and knowledge spreads fast and a sustainable ‘knowledge net’ is created.

This sharing and effective use of knowledge at the grassroots really works.

Babur Ali, from a village in the coastal Shatkhira district, has benefited from advice and support from extension worker Abdul Ahad. He had a goat that had stopped feeding. He received de-worming tablets, powder and vitamin injection from Ahad, which significantly improved the goat's health and it began feeding again.

Similarly, shrimp farmer Bishawjit Mondol has been able to control snail infestations at his farm after he learned how to use tobacco powder as bio-pesticide from a fisheries rural extension worker who had been trained through the Gyaner Haat in Atulia Union.

The exciting thing is that we are helping the official government extension workers to reach much further down into the community, to real farmers who can benefit from their knowledge – really reaching that last mile. This helps a large and slow bureaucracy turn into something more agile and able to meet the needs of the poor.

We use similar approaches to knowledge sharing in different parts of the world, adjusting to the local context.

For instance, in Nepal we work out of local community libraries. There is less emphasis on extension workers being able to answer questions immediately, and instead enquiries are gathered together for experts to answer. In some cases the enquiries are passed up to a national radio station who record an interview with an expert for broadcast – which is then taken on a laptop back to the community.

Voice recordings have also been a key part of work in Zimbabwe, where we have taken podcasts into the community on MP3 players. We started this digital extension and are now trying to get the national ministry extension service (Agritex) to adopt and expand it. Again, it is local knowledge brokers who go out into the field, meet communities, play podcasts and then pick up further feedback and enquiries.

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