Developing sustainable agricultural technologies with rural women in Jamaica: a participatory media approach

M. Protz

M. Protz is a rural development practitioner who specializes in participatory communication techniques for extension and community development. A director of Mekweseh COmmunications, she lives and works in Jamaica, West Indes, and is pursuing Ph.D. with the Agricultural Extension and Rural Development Department at the University of Reading, United Kingdom.

Mekweseh Ltd.,
Development Support Communications,
66 Main Street,
St Ann's Bay, Jamaica
tel: 876 972 2659
fax: 876 972 9607

Gender and the changing profession of agricultural extension

"Basket full, 'ooman laugh"
(when her basket's full, a woman laughs)
(Jamaican proverb)

Rural women play an important role in Jamaican agriculture: as farmers in their own right, as partners with men on household farms, and as the main cultivators of kitchen gardens. Their role in domestic food production is particularly important, and in Jamaica they play a key role in contributing to food self-sufficiency. Their crucial function in this process is accentuated by the fact that women are also processors of food for rural households. Food self-sufficiency in Jamaica, as in many parts of the world, is therefore doubly dependent on women's work.

However, because of the multiple roles women play in the rural household (not only as producers, but as the main caretakers of children and the elderly), they have not always benefited fully from existing channels (e.g. extension services) for technology dissemination, particularly when access to those channels conflicts with their other household responsibilities.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, structural adjustment policies in Jamaica have reduced the ability of extension services to reach women as a result of a "severe reduction in the number of extension posts, and hence the delivery of extension services to the 180 000 small and subsistence farm families" (Fraser, 1991). While women's exclusion from existing extension processes has not necessarily been intentional, it has nevertheless resulted in the omission of important human resources for Jamaica's agricultural and national development. A main challenge to Jamaican extension practice, therefore, has been to find creative and cost-effective ways to communicate with rural women.

The agricultural extension profession has undergone a great deal of change. In recent years, the profession has experienced something of a paradox caused by two seemingly different philosophical thrusts. On one hand, communication technologies have become more sophisticated; extension workers may now need to master technologies such as the Internet to access information on the latest agricultural innovations and communicate them to their specific target groups. On the other hand, rural development experiences from around the world have shown that new "scientific" technologies, whether agricultural or communication, are not always the best strategy to adopt. Farmers' indigenous agricultural practices offer many answers, and the best of both knowledge areas needs to be considered to meet local needs. Agricultural extension is a multidimensional profession that requires an understanding of science, technology, communication, local culture and the role of social relationships in agricultural decision-making.

A pilot project experience from Jamaica offers a unique gender approach to using various participatory media at appropriate moments during the technology development and extension process. The experience may serve as a useful methodology for extension professionals who are trying to meet the demands of a changing profession and reach more women producers.

Nature of the project

To explore communication approaches to reach rural women, the project Participatory Communication for Fertilizer Technology Transfer: A Gender Approach was conducted from April 1994 to December 1996 as a subcomponent of a larger programme to improve the effective use of a variety of soil nutrients in Jamaica. The larger programme was a five-year joint project between the Government of Jamaica and the Government of Canada, called Soil Nutrients for Agricultural Productivity (SNAP).

From the beginning, the subproject recognized that communication approaches have to be empowering, culturally relevant and supportive of indigenous knowledge. Using various media, the goal of the project was to develop a participatory communication model that would deliver appropriately designed soil nutrient technologies to rural women. In addition, the project hoped to achieve the following:

The project was implemented in three rural communities in Saint Ann, a parish in the mid-north part of the island. Comprising 1 212.6 square miles (approximately 3 140 km2, Saint Ann is the largest parish in Jamaica and one of the most agricultural.

Communication approaches

A range of communication approaches were used in the project during its three phases: introduction; technology introduction and testing; and redesign of the "techpack". The approaches are described under the corresponding phases of the project.

Phase one: introduction

One-one-one farm visits and contribution to farm labour. The first two to three months of the project were spent contributing labour to the women's farms. This helped the project personnel to build trust with the farmers and to observe and discuss specific farming and/or personal issues. This approach puts the extension officer in the position of learner and listener, rather than the usual role of expert or teacher. The contribution to farm labour provided farmers with an immediate benefit from the project.

Community video screenings. A series of videotapes that profiled other Jamaican agricultural projects were screened in the communities. This activity revealed that video facilities were available in each community, the level of interest in the programmes was high, people enjoyed the medium of video and viewers were quite impressed with what the other farmers in the videos had achieved. It also revealed that people's level of awareness of the activities of other rural communities and farmer organizations in Jamaica was quite low - one person exclaimed during a screening: "What country is that?" It was also found that people would organize themselves to attend a screening if the programme content was thought to be important or interesting.

Community demonstration plots. Demonstration plots were established and videotaped to compare the effects of various soil nutrient applications. Unfortunately, because of drought, this activity was not completed.

Baseline survey: a visual ethnographic approach. A baseline survey was conducted for later evaluation. All of the respondents were interviewed either on videotape or audiotape using an open-ended questionnaire. Video has been used in similar baseline research elsewhere, but seldom as extensively as in this study.

The following advantages of using video- and audiotapes were found:

The disadvantages of using video for data collection were primarily the cost and the time involved in transcribing the interviews. Overall, however, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.

Once analysed, the data from the baseline survey provided important information that guided future actions in the project. For example, it was found that:

Dramatization. To verify the baseline findings, a drama was developed to improve understanding of how the nature of gender relationships within the farm family affected agricultural decision-making, particularly with respect to fertilizer use and soil fertility issues.

Rural women from one of the project communities were hired as actors because they were members of the same cultural group and they were accustomed to performing folk songs and dances for large audiences. The activity was also intended to help the women develop their own organizational skills.

The play revolved around three sisters involved in farming. One of the sisters was a single mother whose common-law husband had left for a farm work programme and never returned. The second sister was married and therefore had more economic security than the first sister, but her husband was both emotionally and physically abusive. She worked with her husband but had no control over financial decision-making. The third sister and her husband faced financial hardships but they had a good relationship with respect to agricultural decision-making.

Some of the scenarios were purposely exaggerated. In parts, the play was amusing so that the men did not find it threatening. In general, the audiences agreed that the play was realistic. The audience's response to the play helped to gauge the quality of gender relationships in the community. This was important for cross-checking and validating the impressions from the baseline survey.

Each performance was videotaped and then shown again in each community. It was possible to stop the video to discuss particular points in more depth. The following information was collected from the activities surrounding the play:

The drama proved to be the most effective way to validate the project's credibility in the communities. It was also the most "participatory" of all the communication approaches used and was the best way to explore very sensitive gender issues.

Communication cadres and photography training. Each community was asked to identify two mature women farmers, one young woman and one young man to serve as their community's communication cadre. These people received basic training in layout and design, participatory rural appraisal (PRA) techniques and photography. Over a two-week period, the communication cadres learned how to operate and maintain a small simple camera, plan shots and use photographic inquiry for the identification and analysis of problems. Participants then photographed:

The problems and resources were then ranked. The analysis helped participants to develop a better understanding between age and gender groups. It helped the project to understand how the agricultural issues ranked against other issues affecting each community and also helped to create a better understanding of differences between the project's objectives and the communities' objectives.

Oral history testimonies. Oral history documentation can provide the cultural context for agricultural practices and can reveal a great deal of indigenous knowledge about agriculture and the social relationships that could affect the project's progress. They can also yield anecdotes to make agricultural materials more locally appropriate.

In the post-training phase, the communication cadres began to produce newsletters. A number of interesting stories about each community's history emerged from interviews with older community members and were published in the newsletters.

Although oral history documentation is rich and can help to "anchor" a project culturally, it also requires a great deal of time to perform.

Phase two: technology introduction and testing

Newsletter production. Throughout the project, a quarterly project newsletter was produced to generate interest in the project and to inform people of its activities. The newsletter also served to inform participants and non-project audiences about soil fertility and other agricultural issues. It was also used as supplementary reading material for the local adult literacy training programme - the Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL).

Evaluation showed a high level of interest in the newsletter, especially among farmers. The value of the written word was respected and, when coupled with profiles of rural life and local people, the newsletters were well received. The newsletter proved to be a medium that farmers could refer back to as needed, especially for detailed information that is not as easily transferred by television, radio, video and drama.

In this project's experience, well-designed pre-tested community newsletters have great potential for the transfer of agricultural information in Jamaica, even to people who may not be able to read well.


"Rough cut" instructional video. A "rough cut" video was produced which proposed a number of techniques for conserving soil and/or increasing soil fertility. The rough cut video was screened in each community and analysed. Participants were then invited to test out combinations of the techniques suggested in the video. One hundred women registered and agreed to test at least four techniques over the next year.

A participant using video for PRA

Participatory video training course. Participatory video training was conducted within each of the communities. The training resulted in a series of short, humorous and insightful programmes related to agriculture and indigenous soil fertility technologies. These included programmes on:

As a result of the video training, more indigenous techniques were discovered that were explored in more depth before revising the final video techpack.

Phase three: redesign of the techpack

After approximately nine months of testing, the technologies presented in the rough cut video were evaluated. Using the video PRA, the baseline survey and the mid-term evaluation, the techpack was revised in a number of ways. For example, the women had improved on the construction of the compost bin presented in the rough cut video by using the traditional method of "wattling" to weave the wooden components of the bins together instead of using nails.

The soil fertility benefits of saila or Clusia flava were discovered by one woman who noticed she got much higher yields when she used this plant as mulch. Samples of the plant were taken to the University of the West Indies in Kingston where it was identified and found to be very high in nitrogen.

Wherever possible, the participants with video production skills were involved in re-taping the video and used as narrators to continue the farmer to farmer communication approach. The final video technology package presented soil conservation and soil nutrient recommendations for small farm families in Jamaica. A print version of the techpack was also prepared and tested.


The experience of the SNAP subproject Participatory Communication for Fertilizer Technology Transfer: A Gender Approach showed that agricultural decision-making by farm families is affected by the circumstances they find themselves in and by their current needs.

The project found that decision-making is influenced by the quality of gender relationships within the family and by gender differences with respect to access to resources and access to the benefits derived from agricultural production. The project has shown that women have specific information needs and may require different agricultural and soil fertility technologies. In order to develop appropriate agricultural technologies for rural women and their families, a participatory communication and extension methodology is required that incorporates both indigenous and scientific knowledge. The more culturally appropriate agricultural materials and their delivery are, the more readily they will be received.

Using a gender approach, the importance of both men and women in agriculture is affirmed. Rural women do not make farming decisions in isolation from all the other decisions that affect their family and their relationships, therefore, the quality and nature of these relationships must be considered. Agricultural practices are required that are easy for women to perform, culturally acceptable and presented in a format that is easy for women to understand.

This project presents a methodology and a set of participatory communication techniques for a gender approach to agricultural projects. It also indicates how the extension profession can select from a variety of traditional and modern communication methods, according to the needs of particular projects and farmers.


Fraser, H. 1991. Paper prepared for the Subregional FAO Round Table on Adaptation of the Extension Services to Rural Development Needs in the Caribbean, Kingston, 26-30 August 1991.

McFarlane, D. & Kleysent, B. 1994. Conference Report. IICA/IDB Regional Conference on Rural Women Food Producers in the Caribbean, 23-24 August 1994, Kingston.