ICT in agriculture

Zim has a lot to learn about modern farming
Agriculture is an important sector involving the majority of the rural population in developing countries, including Zimbabwe which is an agro-based economy.

This sector faces major challenges in enhancing production in situations of dwindling natural resources, lack of financial support and under-utilization of some of the land grabbed during the so-called land reform programme.

Zimbabwe has a lot to learn from other agricultural projects across the world, particularly in countries like India, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Bolivia which have embraced ICTs. We believe with the increased penetration of mobile telecommunication technologies into the rural areas we will see an increased use of technology to foster agriculture growth and bring prosperity to many rural Zimbabweans.

The growing demand for agricultural products, however, also offers opportunities for producers to sustain and improve their livelihoods. Information and communication technologies (ICT) play an important role in addressing these challenges and uplifting the livelihoods of the rural poor and newly resettled farmers.

ICT has the potential to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and the efficiency of the agricultural sector in developing countries. This includes the use of computers, internet, geographical information systems, mobile phones, as well as traditional media such as radio or TV in dissemination of information to the farmers and the to buyers.

Realising these opportunities for the agriculture industry requires compliance with more stringent quality standards and regulations for the production and handling of agricultural produce. New approaches and technical innovations are required to cope with these challenges and to enhance the livelihoods of the rural population. These are some of the areas where ICT can assist the industry:

Enhancing production

Increasing the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of small-scale farms is an area where ICT can make a significant contribution. Farming involves risks and uncertainties, with farmers facing many threats from poor soils, drought, erosion and pests. Key improvements stem from information about pest and disease control, especially early warning systems, new varieties, new ways to optimise production and regulations for quality control.

Improving market access

Awareness of up-to-date market information on prices for commodities, inputs and consumer trends can improve farmers livelihoods substantially and have a dramatic impact on their negotiating position. Such information is instrumental in making decisions about future crops and commodities and about the best time and place to sell and buy goods. Simple websites to match offer and demand of agricultural produce are a start of more complex agricultural trade systems have been setup.

These sites tend to evolve from local selling/ buying websites and price information systems, to systems offering marketing and trading functions. Typically, price information is collected at the main regional markets and stored in a central database. The information is published on a website, accessible to farmers via information centres. To reach a wider audience, information is broadcast via rural radio, TV or mobile phone, thereby creating a level playing field between producers and traders in a region.

Capacity-building and empowerment

Communities and farmer organisations can be helped through the use of ICTs to strengthen their own capacities and better represent their constituencies when negotiating input and output prices, land claims, resource rights and infrastructure projects. ICT enables rural communities to interact with other stakeholders, thus reducing social isolation. An important role can also played by ICT in making processes more efficient and transparent. It helps in making laws and land titles more accessible. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) linked to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), digital cameras and internet, help rural communities to document and communicate their situation. Rural communities benefit from better access to credit and rural banking facilities.

Enabling environment

Several conditions must be met to create a conducive enabling environment for the successful inclusion of ICT in agriculture:

ICT in agriculture sector plans

Increasingly governments must realise the necessity to link ICT and agriculture and incorporate ICT in agricultural sector policies and programmes. This must be spearheaded in conjunction with all the stakeholders.

Need for relevant agricultural information

It is generally accepted that information to sustain and increase agricultural production is spread over different agencies, notably farmers, universities, research institutes, extension services, commercial enterprises, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, this knowledge is often poorly documented or hard to access.

Timely information available in appropriate formats

Data must be available in electronic format on portals and platforms where it can be accessible by the farmers. Economies of scale can be realised through the use of shared platforms using common standards. Messages through videos in local languages have proved to be effective. At this point in time, combining old and new media is most successful, such as videos of good practices, rural theatre, TV and radio broadcasts, which all provide input for local innovation.

Institutional mechanisms and human capacity to link rural communities

There is a huge gap between information residing in agricultural knowledge centres and rural communities. At local level, multi-stakeholder mechanisms are important to make relevant information accessible to end users. Intermediary organizations have to connect rural communities to available knowledge. Users will increasingly want tailor-made, quality answers to their questions.

Rural access and exchange mechanisms: connectivity and telecentres

Internet access is seen as central for societal innovation because storing of large datasets and live communication requires good connectivity. Use of mobile phones has seen an enormous increase in recent years, especially in rural areas in Africa. Various access tools are converging, becoming cheaper and more flexible. New mobile phones and laptops provide omnipresent access with ample functionality for communication, transactions and transfer of data.

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