Academic institutions play a key role in addressing the challenges facing the agricultural sector.
Academic institutions play a key role in addressing the challenges facing the agricultural sector by providing science-based content and understanding how to best use the diverse range of ICT delivery channels.
Every night, a billion people go to sleep hungry, and 70% of these are small-scale farmers and their families. Lack of credit and access to markets and information often lie at the core of their problems. To try and fix these problems, millions of dollars are provided each year not only to help poor farmers, but also to protect the environment and promote broad economic development.
What may not always be clear is that universities like the University of California, Davis, and The University of the West Indies (The UWI) in St Augustine, Trinidad, play an enduring role in global development. Today these universities are focusing on using ICT4Ag to address the vexing challenges of food security and the environment by expanding information access and connecting small-scale farmers and fishers, vendors, markets, policy-makers and natural resource users.
Research institutes as ICT4Ag service providers
Universities provide long-term threads of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary research that underpins agriculture policy, best practice and programming. In many cases, they have research, education and outreach mandates at all levels. The establishment of the World Food Center at UC Davis and the rebranding of UWI’s Faculty of Food & Agriculture (FF&A) with existing units such as the Cocoa Research Centre are examples of the type of institutional commitment many universities make to contribute globally. These facilities work to improve food access, reduce poverty and protect our fragile environment. Focusing on agriculture, UC Davis has worked with over 100 countries to strengthen technical, extension and information development and delivery services. Many recent initiatives involve ICTs. For example, in response to the often-observed farmer knowledge gaps, UC Davis has established online information repositories such as e-Afghan Ag (see page 11 in this issue), e-China Apple and e-Pak Ag. Indeed, ‘content is king’ is the catchphrase – these information assets are developed to provide credible, relevant information to those helping farmers. Several related activities have worked to understand how to best use the diverse range of possible ICT delivery channels. The principles of effective communication leading to behaviour change so developed are then shared to strengthen national capacity and information delivery.
In addition to a long and rich tradition of research and extension by UWI FF&A, the university’s computing and information technology (DCIT) and electrical and computer engineering (ECNG) departments have developed a variety of ICT applications for agriculture and fisheries. DCIT has applied intelligent decision support around agriculture data in the development of AgriNeTT, a mobile application for small-scale farmers to enhance crop management, for example. The Caribbean ICT Research Programme (CIRP) in ECNG has developed the mFisheries suite of mobile applications for at-sea safety, navigation, a virtual marketplace, and various information and communications services using different media. CIRP is also collaborating with the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organizations on the use of multimodal web channels for regional engagement with the ultimate aim of participatory governance.
How to achieve greater impact
We have identified successful underlying principles for ICT interventions for farmers and fishers. While these principles may not appear particularly new to those working in the ICT field, they are all essential for success. For example, programmes need to start by clearly knowing their audience’s needs. Information must be widely available and is best delivered through multiple channels appropriate to the audience. The information needs to be clearly, concisely and attractively packaged so that it delivers evident and compelling value at a logical and aspirational level. Underlying all this is the need for trust – trust in the message and the messenger. Delivery is not a ‘fly-in fly out’ activity. Local partnerships with trusted intermediaries are critical for long-term success.
Universities play a key role in the ecosystem of agents necessary to address the many challenges faced by the agricultural sector. While their unique strengths lie in areas such as teaching, training, research and analysis, operationalising interventions requires a great many other agencies whose strengths lie in complementary areas. Partnerships within the ecosystem are essential. For example, while some partners can promote joint knowledge resources at the target group level, others can facilitate greater interaction with target groups. These target groups themselves must be key partners in the provision of ongoing feedback essential to improving the tools, materials and delivery channels. Improved strategies and channels for building relationships and engagement amongst partners are essential for synergy, efficiency and increased impact.