Designing for Teff Farmers in Ethiopia


Background on Teff in Ethiopia

There have been lots of articles in various international news outlets lately about teff, the tiny super grain that is poised to become the “next quinoa” due to its nutritional properties and on account of it being gluten free. You can read some of the stories here,  here and here.
Teff as a grain cannot be exported outside of the country, although there was a recent announcement that teff flour will start being exported but will be extremely regulated. In my opinion, the regulation is good for Ethiopian farmers. Prices for injera (the sour pancake eaten by the majority of Ethiopians made from teff) have soared due to internal and global demand and that impacts farmers. Pricing those who need to eat the food the most is the worst thing that can happen when a new food trend catches on.

The primary issue has been that although on-station trials have shown that row planting this tiny grain can significantly increase the yield, the result has not been replicated in real life farming communities. Row planting remains a challenge for small-holder farmers for a variety of reasons. The government has done a great job in promoting row planting through its extension service and work and is really pushing adoption of this method of planting to increase yields across the country.  Our work in Ethiopia is driven by this imperative: how can we increase the adoption of row planting among smallholder farmers in Ethiopia? We are tackling it in an inter-connected three-pronged approach: Capacity-Building of Extension services, Agricultural Trials and Behavior Change Communications. If you want more information on the agricultural trials portion, my colleague blogs about it here.

Design-Thinking and Designing for Low Literacy Audiences

I am leading the Behavior Change Communications piece of the puzzle (and in my opinion it is the most fun one). Although there are many projects that I am working on, the main one the last few months/weeks has been the development of a farmer planting flier which outlines the main steps of row planting to audiences with low literacy levels, while targeting some very specific changes in planting behavior.

If you have never heard of Design-Thinking, the graphic below shows the main steps of the process. It is built to center around the users and those you are designing for and includes lots of testing and prototyping to ensure that the impact and solutions are user-driven and based.


So, in keeping with this process, the team thought about the behaviors that are necessary to ensure that row planting is done properly, from an agronomic point of view but also from a more social view point. We checked data from various sources, including our own to see what farmers are currently doing and what needs to change. Armed with this information and using the Theory of Planned Behavior we started prototyping various designs, concepts and steps for the farmer handout, including a “Why” and a “How” for row planting.

So, what does that LOOK like? Well, maybe these photos will give you a good idea.

After consulting with colleagues, field staff and testing out some of the steps, I sketched out some of my ideas very roughly. We then went back and forth on a variety of designs, concepts and steps. Some rough ideas below:

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After we had consolidated some ideas, we sent the “HOW” steps to a graphic designer to help us prototype a version that we could test with farmers.

For the “WHY” side of the handout, I really wanted to make sure that we were including real photos of farmers and the benefits of row planting. So, I got to spend a whole day in the field taking photos of farmers, their families and their teff harvests, in addition to some posing for showing the benefits of planting in rows. For example, with bigger harvests, you can send your children to school OR you can buy a cow.

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But of course, good ideas are not enough! We have to go TEST them. So off we went to the field and talked to dozens of farmers testing a variety of things from comprehension of the steps to the way the handout itself was designed and messaging. We learned A LOT. And we keep learning A LOT. Basically, my days are spent in the field talking to farmers, coming home and creating new iterations and going out the next day to test out a few more.

Here are photos of some of the iterations we did and my colleagues speaking to farmers, testing their understanding of various steps to see what should be included and what shouldn’t, what needs to be changed, etc. We learned so much from this. For example, even though the concept of the thumbs-up, thumbs-down and or check mark for good and “x” for bad seems pretty universal, these are culturally motivated concepts that aren’t understood by the majority of farmers we talked to. Some symbols or colors are used by political parties and we want to steer clear of that! We also learned that we needed to keep everything extremely simple, most farmers we talked to were not able to make relationships between the images of a happy family in front of a huge teff yield and the various things (going to school, buying a cow), lots of them thought that  it was a poster to promote family planning.

For the how side, one of the farmers we talked to thought that we were showing him steps to make tea! (I’m still not sure I see that one but it was good feedback indeed). We had included some “helpful” elements to help farmers relate to the steps, for example, furrows need to be planted in 20cm spacing and we included a bottle in the photo and the outline of a bottle and a ruler at the bottom of the page to help them measure. They almost never were able to relate these things together so we cut them out.

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At one point, we decided that graphic design of the “HOW” steps was not working as well as we thought it would so off I went to the field to try and find a farmer to simulate a “wet” field (planting is done during rainy season) to take photos of the steps. We tried taking photos of teff grains at the market, and tried a variety of images to show row planting= good because high yield. It is a much more difficult thing than I had first imagined it would be.

What message do you see when you put these two images of teff seeds side by side? We thought that showing a farmer broadcasting seed along with the photo on the left and a farmer row planting seed with the photo on the right would translate into: plant in rows to get more yield! But the message that farmers took away was, use good seed variety to plant (which though is important, is not the message we are going for).

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So what does it look like after all of those iterations? Well, we’re still working on it! But once we decide on it, we need to print 175,000 copies and distribute it to farmers across 6 woredas in Ethiopia… Before planting starts around mid-June. Not a small feat, considering the logistics of procurement, delivery and training hundreds of extension workers. Our team is solid and we’re up to the challenge but, in case you have been wondering, that’s what I have been doing with my time.

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So, when you start seeing teff flour in your local health store, take a second to think about all the work that has been put into planting by the smallholder farmers of Ethiopia and the agencies pushing to increase yields across this country.

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