by Charles Mahoney Charles Mahoney describes how Honduran extension officers have been equipped with a wide range of ICTs to support smallholder farmers after the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. ICTs such as a global positioning system (GPS) device and digital cameras give extension officers immediate access to vital agricultural information and enable them to make recommendations to farmers on the spot.
Imagine this: extension workers and technicians who go around the country in mobile offices equipped with a wide range of top-notch ICTs such as a global positioning system (GPS) device, digital cameras and laptops. With this equipment they have immediate access to vital agricultural information and can make recommendations to farmers on the spot. As a result, the technicians are able to spend 95% of their time in the field instead of the office, providing direct technical assistance to farmers. This is not a distant future scenario, but is already happening in Honduras, where staff of the US-based agribusiness development consultancy Fintrac are working to increase sales of non-traditional horticultural produce and boost the incomes of smallholder farmers.
It all started in 2000, when the USAID-funded Center for Developing Agribusiness (CDA) took on the task of revitalizing the Honduran non-traditional agricultural sector after the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. Fintrac, which has a long track record in providing technical assistance in the Caribbean and Africa, was called upon to support farmers, food processors, exporters, and allied agribusinesses all along the farm-to-market chain. Its task is to manage knowledge, monitor and evaluate client farmers, disseminate technical information, and make market research data and information available to field technicians and clients. The programme collaborates with 500 ‘lead partners’, and provides direct services to a further 5000 small farmers, focusing on improving production and post-harvest systems, market linkages, and infrastructure. To ensure the smooth operation of all the different information channels, the innovative use of ICTs has been decisive.
While implementing the CDA programme in Honduras, Fintrac designed its own field-based management information system to provide real-time feedback from field staff on individual clients. The system is used to track technical assistance delivered, follow-up actions required, impacts and results, training, and investments. From their mobile offices, CDA’s field agronomists and other technicians enter this information into a database using a laptop, and submit it via the Internet for posting on Fintrac’s intranet. In addition to a laptop, CDA technicians also typically have at their disposal a GPS device, which is used to map farm boundaries, topography, and irrigation systems, as well as digital cameras, portable printers, cell phones, portable weather stations, and floppy disk drives.
‘Technology is an important part of our work,’ says Andrew Medlicott, Fintrac’s Latin American Director. ‘The information technology we use captures almost all of the activities and results in the field, based on which we can generate reports and data. The growers see the difference with the immediate delivery of analyses and recommendations. In most technical assistance programmes field staff record information and deliver it a week later after returning to their office. But a week is a long time in agriculture – it can mean the difference between profit and loss’.
Fintrac has taken these ICT innovations and improved on them. In September 2003 the company launched new proprietary software, called the Client Impact and Results Information System (CIRIS), which has been designed specifically for agribusiness development programmes. The system’s reporting capabilities will enable an improved level of technical communication between Fintrac staff throughout Honduras and elsewhere. At the client level, not only will field technicians be able to access individual client data and follow-up technical assistance requirements, as is currently the case, they will also be able to view recommendations made by other field staff on a crop-specific basis across the world. With CIRIS, all Fintrac laptops will have fully replicated versions of the master database, so that field staff do not need to be online. This is critical if they are based in remote areas with only sporadic access to the Internet. On the programme management side, Fintrac project and home office supervisors, as well as donor staff, can access real-time reports online through the programme’s intranet.
Along with extensive use of ICTs, Fintrac stresses the application of the latest and most affordable agricultural field technology. CDA technicians utilize basic agronomic equipment to assist growers in improving their production systems and in problem solving. It is the combination of effective ICTs along with the latest field equipment and production methods that have contributed to the success of the programme for the benefit of Honduran smallholder farmers.