In the first phase of the project, which was initiated in July 2003 and "soft-launched" in November 2004, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is taking the lead alongside 18 national agencies (government departments and universities) and 2 international research organisations. While the project aims to reach the majority of Philippine farmers (1 million total), it is initially concentrating on hybrid rice farm areas in 5 towns in Isabela, 10 in Nueva Ecija, 5 in Pampanga, and 6 in Davao. When fully implemented, the Academy hopes to contribute to good governance, enhance service delivery, maximise the use of existing government information infrastructures, and promote social benefits including food security, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, and competitiveness of the Filipino farmer.
This programme is based on the idea that, through information and communication technology (ICT), technicians and farmers can collaborate in an open environment that enables them to access knowledge and information services. Much of this information is already available, but will be localised; as one organiser put it, "It's like the Philippines has its own internet, generating and sharing knowledge on agriculture from within, from knowledge and information servers of each government institution. And this shall give them options, a basket of technologies, information that shall empower farmers to make better decisions, increase their productivity and livelihood". The idea is that high-speed, low-cost connectivity can enable Filipino farmers to do their work more effectively (e.g., diagnose crop pests by accessing the Internet) or share news with peers anywhere in the country by email.
To begin, organisers set up and accredited information technology (IT) centres or hubs as access points, with accredited technicians at each one. Face-to-face training on interactive communication technology was provided there to approximately 100
government agricultural extension workers, who in August 2004 began communicating farmers' problems to experts and scientists via cell phone
(text messaging) and email.
Software development is a key strategy for enabling the localisation of farm information available for on-line learning, distance education, extension, and advisory service. This software will allow government extension workers to modify and localise information gleaned from various websites, getting what they need, putting the information together in local dialect, adding pictures, and releasing it as shareware. This software has been central in designing an Internet web portal in 4 local languages. Though not yet fully functioning as of this writing, the portal will feature:
- Knowledge bank - production guides, advisory services (crop suitability, maps and indices, feasibility studies, best practices), experts online (tips, columns, article abstracts), a digital library (images, video/audio clips, maps, archive), and databases (weather, statistics, varieties)
- e-learning and distance education - interactive learning modules, certification courses, degree offerings (through collaborating academic institutions), links to learning centres
- e-bulletins - news and features, an events calendar
- e-commerce - market opportunities, industry linkages, buyers and sellers, producers and growers, suppliers, price tokens
- Interactive tools - search engine, directory/yellow pages, FAQ, forums, chat and short messaging service (SMS), web mail, mailing lists
- Administration section - for partners.
Farmers may access this portal from their own personal computers (PCs) or from government computers being set up in Internet kiosks in selected farming villages. The network will also feature a mobile Internet van to bring the technology to isolated areas where there are no such kiosks. The farmers' Internet bus will:
- Provide Internet access in remote areas
- Make concrete the Internet experience to extension workers, farmers, and local executives
- Include a mobile ICT training facility for extension workers and local government units (LGUs)
- Geographical Information Systems (GIS) laboratory equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) to acquire point data while mobile
- Remote pest diagnostics with Experts online
- Remote interactive communications facility featuring videoconferencing solutions and other technologies
- Quick response to field problems and epidemics
- Ground truthing using remote controlled aerial surveillance equipped with wireless camera and GPS.
Agriculture, Technology, Education, Economic Development.
Organisers explain that the Open Academy is an effort to correct the current extension service, which is fragmented and dispersed. As of November 2004, there were 17,000 extension workers are devolved to the local government units; it is difficult and expensive to provide technical support to these extension workers. Furthermore, there is a limited source of up-to-date information in agriculture, meaning that farmers have limited informed options to make informed decisions. ICT is looked upon to link the fragmented system - extension workers, research and documentation (R&D) centres, farmers, and markets.
The Philippines Open Academy for Agriculture shall form part of a global network of Open Academy for farmers now being organised by one of the partners - the International Crops Research for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). In fact, the Philippines programme drew inspiration from the experience of fisherfolk of Pondicherry in Chennai south of India. Organisers claim that Pondicherry fishermen had been hampered by paltry fish catch due to erratic weather. Internet-equipped computers were placed in the village centre so that fisherfolk could access regular weather reports that were also broadcast by loudspeakers and through VHF (very high frequency) radios. SMS also enabled Indian farmers to monitor agricultural products' prices. Local computer scientists retooled their computers by replacing the keyboard keys with Indian characters for better communication; they also designed iconic websites for nonreading audiences.
Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), the Bureau of Agricultural Research, Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), Department of Science and Technology, Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry, Natural Resources Research and Development (PCCARRD), Bureau of Postharvest Research and Extension, Regional Integrated Agricultural Research Center, International Crops Research Institute for Semiarid Regions (ICRISAT), International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Advanced Science and Technology Institute, University of the Philippines Open University, Central Luzon State University, Pampanga Agricultural College, University of Southern Mindanao, Isabela State University (ISU), and the Philippine-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology (Philscat).
Note: While PhilRice was tasked to initially lead the Open Academy, the leadership and management of the Open Academy is expected to change over time, with ATI eventually taking over. The advisory council is made up of all the heads of participating agencies and the technical working group includes experts who serve on one of 5 committees.
"First open academy for Filipino farmers goes high-tech", by C. Marquez Jr. - forwarded to the bytesforall_readers list server on August 26 2004 (click here to access the archives); and Open Academy website; and "Promoting Technology on a Scale Never Before Seen in this Country", by Roger F. Barroga; and emails from Roger F. Barroga of PhilRice to The Communication Initiative on November 16 2004 and July 9 2005.