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How have smallholder farmers used digital extension tools? Developer and user voices from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia

Digital extension tools (DETs) include phone calls, WhatsApp groups and specialised smartphone applications used for agricultural knowledge brokering. We researched processes through which DETs have (and have not) been used by farmers and other extension actors in low- and middle-income countries. We interviewed 40 DET developers across 21 countries and 101 DET users in Bihar, India. We found DET use is commonly constrained by fifteen pitfalls (unawareness of DET, inaccessible device, inaccessible electricity, inaccessible mobile network, insensitive to digital illiteracy, insensitive to illiteracy, unfamiliar language, slow to access, hard to interpret, unengaging, insensitive to user’s knowledge, insensitive to priorities, insensitive to socio-economic constraints, irrelevant to farm, distrust). These pitfalls partially explain why women, less educated and less wealthy farmers often use DETs less, as well as why user-driven DETs (e.g. phone calls and chat apps) are often used more than externally-driven DETs (e.g. specialized smartphone apps). Our second key finding was that users often made – not just found – DETs useful for themselves and others. This suggests the word ‘appropriation’ conceptualises DET use more accurately and helpfully than the word ‘adoption’. Our final key finding was that developers and users advocated almost ubiquitously for involving desired users in DET provision. We synthesize these findings in a one-page framework to help funders and developers facilitate more useable, useful and positively impactful DETs. Overall, we conclude developers increase DET use by recognizing users as fellow developers – either through collaborative design or by designing adaptable DETs that create room for user innovation.