ICT a tool to improve agriculture

 

Agriculture is an important sector involving the majority of the rural population in Africa. This sector faces major challenges in enhancing production in situations of dwindling natural resources and lack of financial support.

Therefore, Africans should learn a lot from other countries, which have embraced information and communication technologies (ICTs) to foster the use of technology in agriculture.

Josh Woodard, project manager at Family Health International 360, where he manages USAID’s Facet project that focuses on ICT and agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, once asked, “Information and communication technologies for climate change and agriculture are developing fast, but how do they fit into the big picture?”

Woodard was asking about the impact of ICT tools in cutting carbon emissions and improving agriculture.

To help answer the question, Woodard provided a background: “Greenhouse gases from agriculture account for more than 10 percent of total emissions globally, roughly equivalent to the entire global transport sector.

“Meanwhile, it is estimated that agricultural production will need to increase by about 70 percent by 2050 to keep pace with global population growth.”

He goes on to say: “What is more, the real impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector are likely going to be hardest felt in many of those countries whose people rely on agriculture most for their livelihoods.

“In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and south Asia, for example, some estimates show a reduction in the productivity of most major food crops as a result of changes to the climate over the next 40 years.”

The good news, according to Woodard, is that affordable technologies that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases and increase productivity in agriculture are becoming more widely available.

“I am referring not to agricultural technologies ‑ although those certainly play a role ‑ but to information and communications technologies, like the mobile phone, video and radio,” he said.

This means countries within and across the great African continent should embrace information and communication tools to cut emissions and in the process improve agriculture.

The challenge is that not all farmers know about ICT tools. So how do ICTs change this?

The answer is simple.

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 television in dissemination of information to the farmers and buyers.

Thus, ICTs make it easier to share locally relevant information on improved techniques and to provide time-specific information and recommendations (such as weather forecasts, and when to do what).

Woodard noted: “As mobile phone penetration rates continue to grow at a rapid rate throughout the globe, farmers are gaining access to a growing number of agricultural information services both through SMS and voice.”

In addition to mobile phone services, a growing number of agricultural organisations and agribusinesses have been using low-cost video equipment to create locally made extension videos to share the stories of farmers who have switched to more sustainable practices with their peers in other communities.

Increasing the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of small-scale farms is an area where ICT can make a significant contribution in Africa.

Farming involves risks and uncertainties, with farmers facing many threats from poor soils, drought, erosion and pests.

Key improvements, therefore, stem from information about pest and disease control, especially early warning systems, new varieties, new ways to optimise production and regulations for quality control.

To embrace ICTs effectively to improve agriculture in Africa, governments should invest in ICTs and encourage farmers to take advantage of the potential impact of ICTs.

Furthermore, stakeholders in agriculture should work hard to create content that is relevant to Africa and her citizenry.

Woodard noted this important requirement and comments, “While ICTs can support the transition to more sustainable agricultural practices, they still require someone to create high quality and relevant content, and someone to pay for the dissemination of that information.”

It is also important for stakeholders in agriculture to ensure that data is available on time. This data should be available in electronic format on portals and platforms where it can be accessible by the farmers.

Economies of scale can be realised with shared platforms using common standards. Messages through videos in local languages have proved to be effective.

Combining old and new media is most successful, such as combining videos of good practices, rural theatre, television and radio broadcasts, which all provide input for local innovation.

Africa and her citizenry 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.

With the increased penetration of mobile telecommunication technologies into the rural areas, Africans should see an increased use of technology to foster agriculture growth and bring prosperity to many rural Africans.

December 2013
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