Technology for whom? Discovering how Human - Centered Design (HCD) and User Research can help switch perspectives in Ethiopia

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    CGIAR Initiative on Excellence in Agronomy
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“We need to know which questions to ask” – was the request of Lulseged Desta, Principal Scientist with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Lusleged and his team have developed fertilizer recommendations for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia ( The location-specific, tailored and season-smart agro-advisory decision support tool (DST) has been developed in collaboration with the Excellence in Agronomy Initiative (EiA), GIZ-Ethiopia of Supporting Soil Health Initiatives (SSHI) project, the Coalition of the Willing (CoW) (, and Digital Green. The project aims at providing an alternative to the government blanket recommendations currently guiding the application of fertilizers in Ethiopia: Recommendations specific to soil types, topographic features, and climate zones could significantly improve the productivity in the wheat growing areas of Ethiopia and thus save money and boost income for farmers. The advisory messages are being distributed through different channels, starting with community video screenings in partnership with Digital Green, on-field piloting and potentially via IVR technology (Interactive Voice response).

The problem

After deploying their Agro-Advisory Services in the highlands of Ethiopia, the team realized a mismatch between the life reality of farmers and the service offered. The initial adoption of the fertilizer advisory messages delivered currently via community videos was good, but concerns were raised if this was going to be sustainable without regular in person follow ups from extension agents and also whether the uptake could be further improved. The team realized that they needed more user insights in this stage of the innovation development to address farmers and their specific needs. This is a common problem in the development of digital innovations: the design is often driven by technological possibilities rather than the identified needs and media habits of the people who are supposed to use the tool. In order to render innovation design more sustainable,  Excellence in Agronomy is realizing training and capacity building around the value of Human-Centered Design and User Research for digital agricultural innovations.

Anna Muller, Scientist with the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, explains the value of this: “We want to reverse how we currently develop innovations, where we come as researchers and develop a tool that we think could be the best solution and kind of impose it, or deploy it. So what we want to achieve with our work and research is that we engage with the farmers or users, feel empathy for them and acknowledge that they make the best decisions for their environment. This entails acknowledging ambiguity, learning from failure, and building on many loops of iteration and learning. In a nutshell, Human Centered Design allows us to be closer to the users’ needs and build better solutions for them.”

With the help of the User Research expert Dr. Charlotte Schumann, EiA organized a User Research Discovery Week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During this week, the Ethiopia Use Case team and their partners (Digital Green, Ministry of Agriculture, GIZ) were exposed to HCD and User Research methods and concepts in theory and practice. The initial questions of the collaboratively designed agenda circled around alternative approaches to user segmentation. Currently, the team of data scientists, agronomists, and gender researchers based their user segmentation on demographics and economic indicators, mainly with regard to improving communication and outreach. Being exposed to the needs-based approach taken by Human centered design, the Use Case team’s focus rapidly shifted towards identifying problems related to fertilization from the perspective of the motivations, routines and habits of their target groups.

A User persona is an idealized user profile that represents the needs and goals, attitudes and behavior patterns of your user rather than demographic identifiers like age, gender, or household size. This design method can help your team at any stage in the innovation development cycle to empathize with their users as well as to prioritize features that are fulfilling actual needs based on data-based research results​. It is also a crucial tool to avoid long development or scaling attempts for innovations with low user fit. Equipped with a field guide containing the jointly prioritized questions, as well as an interview and observation guide, the team took the road to collect information for their User Personas in interviews with farmers. In the recently harvested wheat fields of Debre Birhan, North Shoa zone of Amhara region, the team met farmers in their houses and tried to explore their perspective on the issue of fertilization: What are the steps to take and which barriers do farmers see? What is their perception of the existing communication channels regarding the topic? What are they striving for when fertilizing and what are their experiences so far?

Field work in Debre Berham Ethiopia 

In only a few exploratory interviews the team discovered new perspectives on the topic of fertilization seen through the eyes of smallholder farmers: access is regulated via the state in Ethiopia, and in many instances farmers are not able to access the amount of fertilizer they may require. Secondly, prices have gone up (among the highest in 2021/2022 season) and farmers already need to take up microcredit to be able to pay fertilizer at a time their cash availability is low, during sowing time. In this context, farmers were also highly interested in learning more about how to make their own organic input and usage of these home-made alternatives. Adding to these qualitative insights, the team sat down for a joint brainstorming session with extension agents and started to sort insights into categories and identify main need categories around the topic of fertilization. This way, several preliminary Personas were drafted around issues concerning fertilization.

Building User Personas with the extension agents, Preliminary User Persona 1

Back in the office in Addis Ababa, the team used the female User Persona to understand potential pitfalls of excluding women with digital fertilizer recommendations. With the help of the Rapid Gender Inclusivity Assessment Tool (RIA), the team analyzed which difficulties women would face if the site-specific fertilizer recommendations would be shared via Interactive Voice Recognition technology (IVR). RIA is a version of the design method User Journey adapted to the stakeholders and context of CGIAR projects: a tool for the step-by-step analysis of the experience a user has or would have in your product or with your technology, in this case accessing the pre-recorded messages via their phones.

By going through the experience from the perspective of a female user, the team put themselves in the shoes of a first-time user and discovered some gaps in their understanding of the female experience. This relates to, e.g. how women could hear about these services, or the nitties and gritties of phone use in rural areas – connection breakdown, charging issues, no phone book or internet to look up the phone number etc. Measures to counter these barriers can be completely analogue, like printing posters with the numbers to dial or promoting the use of solar chargers in the villages. While not directly linked to the digital extension service, it is these surrounding factors that create a successful user experience and lead to long term adoption.
RAI application with EiA and partners

After this week of in-person training, Wuletawu Abera, data scientist, stated his enthusiasm for problem definition with qualitative, bottom up methods:

“One of the things that I would love to implement in the future is to design our technologies in the way that they can accommodate the interest of smallholder farmers. Not just in a top down approach, but to address the interest, the motivations and frustration of the farmers. The idea is that we generate a lot of innovations, with the thinking that we understand the problem of the farmer but in fact, at the core we still don’t understand how to apply it on the ground. So these methods help us to articulate, to understand the pain point of the challenge that the farmers face.”

As next steps after this Discovery week, the team will develop a User Research plan for more in-depth application of the User Persona methodology. Lulseged Desta is determined to increasingly use Human Centered Design methods to address real needs and limitations of the farmers in Ethiopia:

“I was not really sure whether we can represent the situation of Ethiopian farmers by interviewing 6 to 7 farmers. I realized after discussing with these farmers and extension workers that most of the conditions can be represented based on this small sample. It was a great exercise to discuss with extension on how to characterize farmers’ fertilization practices. After this training, the whole team realized how essential it is to start to apply Human Centered Design methods to really understand what the farmers need, what their priorities and constraints are, and what the surrounding limitations and enabling environments are. I hope we can do this further.”



This work has been made possible by a cooperation between the CGIAR Excellence in Agronomy Initiative (EiA) as well as by the Digital Innovation Initiative (DI/DX) . The CGIAR Excellence in Agronomy (EiA) Initiative, was launched to deliver agronomic gain through an increase in productivity and quality per unit of input, resource use efficiency ( Nutrients, Labour, Water), soil health, and climate adaptation, for millions of smallholder farming households in prioritized farming systems by 2030, with an emphasis on women and young farmers, showing a measurable impact on food and nutrition security, income, resource use, soil health, climate resilience and climate change mitigation.  The CGIAR Digital Innovation (DI/DX) Initiative aims to develop and support digital innovations to stimulate the inclusive, sustainable transformation of food, land and water systems in the areas of investments that policymakers could make to close the digital divide, information delivery systems that allow more people to take action against predicted risks, and ways for partner organizations and marginalized communities to enhance digital capabilities, access resources and opportunities.

For more information, reach out to Anna Muller (DI/DX), Charlotte Schumann (HCD/User Research) or Lulseged Desta (EiA).


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