Burkinabé Association of Agricultural Journalists and Communicators (ABJCA)
This article was written in French by journalist Inoussa Maïga from Burkina Faso, who discusses strategies for using the complementarity of different information and communication technology (ICT) tools to achieve sustainable impact on farmers.
Maïga's thoughts were inspired by his participation in the International Conference on ICT4ag, which was co-hosted by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), November 4-8 2013, Kigali, Rwanda. It was meant to explore the possibilities that ICT can provide in agriculture as well as the development of new solutions that can improve the day-to-day operations of farmers in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. The event drew close to 500 participants from the government, private sector, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), intergovernmental bodies, and development agencies from 66 countries.
Maïga's overall reflection on the conference is that the use of ICT to share real-time information, reach end users, and collect data is a phenomenon that is gaining popularity. But, he says, the impact of ICTs on the lives of farmers is still unproven. To that end, where the passion for ICT in agriculture lies was one of the key issues debated at the conference.
Amongst other elements, Maïga reports on discussions that took place at the conference related to agriculture and youth. Michael Hailu, CTA Director, noted that ICT can contribute significantly to making agriculture a more attractive option for young people, improving living conditions in rural areas. Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, said that this is already the case. This optimism was shared by another attendee, Valentine Rugwabiza, Rwandan Development Bank Director, who noted that the conference room was an audience with a large majority of young people, indicating that youth today also see agriculture as a potential area of economic growth.
Maïga described some of the ICT solutions to support the agricultural sector that were presented at the Plug and Play Day held on November 4 in preparation for the conference. This experience offered participants an opportunity for a dynamic and practical overview of the latest developments in ICT for agriculture. Thirty innovations were presented and discussed - all trying with varying success to align to the needs of different user groups.
As Maïga reports, while celebrating this enthusiasm, Judy Payne, consultant in ICT and Economic Growth at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said that what is more important is to see how take real advantage of it all. Many of the over 100 applications that exist today, she said, are not being applied, and there are no plans to expand them. Furthermore, with a dearth of impact assessment, we don't really know if farmers have used these services with a real impact in their lives. She stressed the need to devise development frameworks that go beyond these applications. Regretting the gap between men and women in the access and use of technologies, Bashir Jama, Director of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), urged that technology use become more inclusive.
In an effort to ensure that ICT has a sustainable impact in the lives of farmers, some organisations have reportedly drawn on the complementarity of different ICT tools. In June 2013, Farm Radio International, HarvestPlus, and TracFM Uganda launched a radio drama series entitled "My Children". The series combines nutrition and agricultural education with an entertaining plot, helping to educate Ugandans on vitamin A deficiency. (With 28 % of children and 23% of women deficient in vitamin A, Uganda is among the countries considered high risk.) The goal is to convince farmers to replace traditional varieties of sweet potato (white and yellow flesh) with a more nutritious variety (orange-fleshed sweet potato). Considering that over 80% of Ugandans have a radio receiver, Bartholomew Sullivan, ICT Specialist at Farm Radio International, confirms that radio remains one of the most effective ICT tools. However, he noted that, when you use radio communication, you talk to people about a topic without knowing who the audience is or their opinion on the topic. The arrival of mobile phone allows radio listeners to interact in real time with the station. He explains that there are several possibilities to combine these ICT tools. For instance, with the concept of "beep" to vote, a listener can call in for free and hang up, meaning "I called you. I want you to remember me." The question posed on the radio show may be, for example: "Have you used the orange-fleshed sweet potato? If YES leave a missed call on the first issue and if NOT leave a missed call on the second number." The radio host receives the votes in real time on a computer.
Maïga concludes that, despite the growing enthusiasm for the development of mobile solutions for agriculture, essential concerns about their scope, efficiency, and sustainability have yet to be addressed. Nonetheless, while technology cannot be a panacea for all the problems of agriculture, it is still an important tool that can foster the development of this sector.
Emails from Stéphane Gambier and Inoussa Maïga to The Communication Initiative on December 6 2013 and January 8 2014, respectively.