A multi-purpose ICT centre in Nigeria facilitates discussion among those involved in value chains, including researchers. The approach has now expanded to more countries.
The Ago-Are area of south-west Nigeria has a good climate and favourable soil conditions for farming. The farmers living there, however, have not been able to take advantage of the area’s agricultural potential, as poor roads, a scarcity of telephone connections and an unreliable electricity supply made it difficult to reach buyers and markets elsewhere in the country.
‘I was working as a scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at the time,’ says Adewale Adekunle. ‘I had an idea to set up a multi-purpose centre,’ he adds, ‘equipped with a variety of ICTs, which would help input dealers and researchers to work with extension officers and farmers in the area.’
IITA realised the centre would need broad support, and investment, to establish the centre and make it successful. The organisation involved the farmers, of course, and included the country’s universities, multi-national corporations, international and national institutes, including the Commonwealth of Learning, and a local village NGO called the Ago-Are Community Development Agency. With an initial investment of US$10,000, the centre was developed with a VSAT internet connection, computers, video players, telephones and two motorcycles.
The farmers saw an opportunity to work with a miller in the town of Ibadan, 150 kilometres away, who was processing maize to produce feed for the poultry industry. In order to work with this miller, the farmers would have to grow a certain type of maize that would meet the miller’s specific standards. This meant that the farmers needed information on how to grow the new maize crop.
At first, the farmers experienced problems with mildew and maize streak virus – so the project helped them to find varieties that were resistant to these diseases. While sourcing the new seed varieties, the project got in touch with an agricultural input supplier who could also supply fertiliser and pesticides to the farmers. The centre also developed links with the local transporters’ union, and with a bank that was willing to lend money to the farmers.
‘The farmers had access to loans to buy the new seed types,’ explains Adekunle. ‘They could get information on growing the crops from extension officers and from the multi-purpose centre. The input provider could sell products to help improve productivity. After harvest, the transporters took the maize to the miller for processing, and the miller sold the product on to the poultry industry. That is how the chain works.’
Before long, 20,000 farmers in the area were in contact with the centre. Some 5,000 farmers lived near enough to travel there to search the internet, or ask for information themselves. The others are either linked by telephone or a representative travels to the centre by motorbike, on their behalf.
Each representative works with a group of 20 farmers. Whenever they want information, the representative comes to the centre to search the internet, videos and other reference material for the answer. If they need further information, they have access to a support desk at the centre and can call a researcher at the IITA help desk. Generally, researchers are able to provide answers immediately, but when they cannot, they can access the internet and have recourse to colleagues either within the institute or outside.
In the early stages, the farmers agreed to pay 10% of their income to fund the centre. But over time, running costs gradually decreased as Ago-Are developed. The advent of a more stable electricity supply has meant that the expensive diesel generator was no longer needed, and a cable internet connection has replaced the VSAT service. Now, the farmers no longer have to subsidise the centre from their profits as it funds itself through running an internet café and snack bar and by hosting film nights.
The centre also organises discussions between the farmers and other businesses in the value chain. This work has led to the development of agricultural innovation platforms (AIPs), a forum for people involved in agricultural value chains. An AIP brings together the farmers in a particular area with other private sector businesses to discuss problems and ensure that they all benefit from improved collaboration.
Adekunle now works for the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), and has expanded the idea of innovation platforms and is using them to develop value chains in other countries, with the express aim of including agricultural researchers in the process.
‘Farmers in remote areas need to be able to find solutions to their problems quickly,’ he says, ‘so that they can participate fully in the value chain. The multi-purpose centre and the innovation platforms have proven to be very efficient and effective in providing smallholders with the information they need. We now use the same principle to help reduce the gap between researchers and farmers.’