April 3, 2017

Katalyst blog series: Extracting valid information from farmers - Katalyst's experience

Tips on understanding the interviewee.

Impact assessments are part of almost every Katalyst intervention. It is the final piece of the puzzle that fits right in to give us the validation and modification of our previous assumptions to portray a clearer and more holistic picture of what can be attributed to our actions. With these assessments, usually comes interviews and questionnaires. However, while creating a research method, a sampling plan and designing the questionnaires are a major part of the assessment, going to the field and actually conducting an interview is another challenge altogether. Understanding farmers and extracting valid information from the people for whom the entire intervention was launched in the first place, is an art in itself. The farmers are at the heart of the intervention and we cannot go wrong with any information regarding them.

Working as a Business Consultant for the maize and fertiliser sector in Katalyst, I had the opportunity to be a part of a few in-house and outsourced impact assessments. The kind of information that is required during these assessments is usually regarding capturing the change in farmers’ cropping pattern, their farming practices and whether they attended any meetings held by any input company, their learning from these meetings or from retailers, their farming costs for the past two years and other relevant information. Some of the preparatory steps to be followed before an assessment are as follows:

  • Rationale for specific research methodology, using a sample size calculator e.g. DCED calculator
  • Sampling plan with region wise team distribution
  • Designing the questionnaire with participation from the implementation team and monitoring team together
  • Acquire reference on input usage amounts for cultivation of region specific crops
  • Gather knowledge on local lingo’s used for various cultivation inputs
  • Gather prior knowledge on region specific cultivation practices from relevant sources
  • Pre-testing the questionnaire
  • Provide proper instructions to the enumerators along with instructions on skipping specific questions not applicable to the interviewees

However, there are numerous challenges when it comes to getting all these facts from farmers. The initial challenge that one may face in the field is being able to build a rapport with the interviewee in a short period of time. This is because the interviews are usually 40 minutes long and interviewees may get impatient. Hence, creating a positive relationship is a crucial ingredient for a good interview. For example, reaching out to the interviewees (farmers) through lead farmers or retailers provides an environment in terms of credibility to share the information more spontaneously. I have witnessed senior colleagues asking questions beyond those mentioned in the questionnaires, just so that the farmers are at ease and are more willing to be part of the interview. The key is to decode the respondent, comprehend the correct approach and master the appropriate techniques that will lead to a smooth conversation. Sometimes asking simple questions about their children or lifestyle can put them at ease. On the other hand, there is no hard and fast rule for this, what might work for one person might not work for another. This is important because, at the end of the day, they hold the answers that can correctly fill out that extremely important piece of paper.  

This is where we meet another challenge: getting the ‘correct’ information from the farmers. In many instances, the respondent may find some questions too personal and they may end up giving vague answers. For example, when it comes to asking about their yearly farming expenses in the cost-benefit analysis portion of the questionnaire, they might be unwilling to share the information. This is where we have to explain why we ask such questions i.e. trying to understand if they benefit from our interventions.

I once met a farmer who would not disclose his confidential accounting figures. After a little careful probing and much rapport building, we found that the reason he did not want to share the exact figures was because he simply did not remember! This happens, and it is imperative that we find a middle ground and a solution, whether by seeking help from supervisors or by using one's own logic. A similar problem that may arise is when a farmer states figures that seem inaccurate. For example, a farmer might say that he uses a certain dose of pesticide on his farming land that is probably nine times more than the amount he should have used and contradictorily mentions that his harvested crops were in good condition, resulting in him being able to sell it at a good profit margin. This is where cross-checking is even more obligatory. In such cases, we may enquire further and try to find out how much pesticide a packet contains and how many packets the farmer used, or how much the total cost of pesticide was. Usually, being thorough helps in identifying the parts where the farmer probably mixed up the numbers and when we go into the detailed breakdown of the costs, the actual figures normally do come out.

Here are some of my tips to follow when interviewing someone:

  • Seek permission to interview if it is expected to be long (at least 40 minutes)
  • Build rapport with the interviewee
  • Cross check amounts given by interviewee
  • Do tentative calculations on cost-benefit, triangulating information received right after the interview, to ensure correct numbers have been recorded
  • Probe the interviewee to ensure all relevant data is received

Some of the tools useful for conducting assessments are:

  • A work-plan that describes different seasons of harvesting information which helps to plan timely impact assessments
  • Intervention plan (including impact logic, assumptions, calculations)
  • Impact assessment tools such as questionnaire for individual farmer survey, focused group discussion, key informant interview
  • Standardized reporting formats for questionnaires and analysis of data
  • Intervention report, to capture what happened during an intervention and the outcomes.

It is true that the overall task of conducting an assessment comprises layers of obstacles, but in hindsight there are always solutions to overcome these barriers. Overcoming the various hurdles at the end of the day is absolutely possible, especially if and when one is working with an excellent team. It is very important that the implementation teams work closely with the monitoring team in such processes and develop tools together.

More in the Kataylst blog series

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