Editorial: A chronicle of ICTs in agriculture

The importance of ICTs for rural and agricultural development

Access to ICTs gives farmers the chance to improve their incomes and increase food security. Since December 2000, ICT Update has reported on the many ways rural communities in have adopted and adapted technology to fit the environment where they live.

ICT Update started in 2000 as a bimonthly web bulletin featuring short summaries of web pages with news and information on ICTs for agricultural development. At that time, because of the limited web access in most developing countries, CTA also distributed the bulletin in its entirety by email and in print. CTA’s partners could retrieve the included web references by email, using so-called web2email service providers in Europe and North America.

In this special 50th issue we look back at almost nine years of chronicling the progress of many ICT projects and trends in ACP countries and the contributions ICTs have made to agricultural and rural development.

In the early years of this century the international development community strongly believed that ICTs could boost socio-economic development in ACP countries and would connect them to ever faster globalizing markets. Agencies such as the ITU, UNDP and UNECA, the World Bank and other donors and international NGOs dominated the ICT for development agenda and launched many programmes to promote knowledge sharing, collaborative networking and e-commerce via the internet in ACP countries. And, because in most of these countries connectivity was poor or non-existent, these organizations invested heavily in ‘first mile’ access solutions that ranged from low-Earth orbit communication satellites to community telecentres in rural areas.

Local organizations

Since 2000, ICT Update has followed the international ICT debate, but it has been actually much more interested in local organizations that were using ICTs to provide services to farmers and their families. ICT Update asked these organizations to tell their own stories, to explain why they had chosen the ICT applications they used, and to share their successes and the challenges they faced.

Over the years, ICT Update has featured programmes and initiatives of agricultural extension services, rural healthcare centres, banking and microfinance institutions, local radio stations, weather stations, and many more. Most of them did not have adequate access to the internet but used other ICTs, including mobile phones, handheld computers or digital personal assistants (PDAs), smart cards, CD-ROM, geographic information systems (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, digital TV and radio, radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices, imaging and acoustic technologies, and of course the web, web 2.0 and email-based programmes.

Often, these initiatives used several ICTs in combination and proved that they could be powerful tools for enhancing agricultural and rural development. They also demonstrated that ICTs could be used at the grassroots level, putting technology in the hands of local organizations and the communities they serve.

Mobile services

Certainly one of the most spectacular technological developments in ACP countries in recent years has been the proliferation of the mobile phone. In 2000 it was unthinkable that mobile phone providers would develop their small, patchy networks into today’s nationwide networks. With their international connections, these networks now form part of the growing global mobile communication market.

Basically, the mobile phone is a handheld communication device designed not just for telephony, but as a platform for a wide variety of services. Therefore, the pioneer mobile phone providers actually paved the way for many successful ICT-based services for rural families in ACP countries. Local entrepreneurs easily recognized that, as in the North, everyone in developing countries would also want to have a mobile phone and that many could actually afford to buy one. This realization spurred them to develop mobile services specifically designed to meet local needs and to function under local conditions.

In December 2002, ICT Update featured Manobi, Africa’s first multi-modal phone service that pioneered the use of mobile phones for getting up-to-date market information to farmers in remote areas, and tailored to their needs. Ever since, ICT Update has followed the growing number of mobile services in ACP countries, and has featured initiatives such as Wizzit, South Africa’s first ‘mobile bank’ for the unbanked, and Celpay’s 'mobile wallet', a payment service by mobile phone in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. ICT Update has highlighted many other uses of the mobile phone in agricultural and rural development projects. The feature article in this issue reports on the wide variety of mobile phone services in ACP countries covered by ICT Update over the past nine nine years.

Digital assistance

Another string of ICT applications that has inspired many practical solutions for problems faced by development organizations has involved the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), often in combination with remote sensing technology, geographic information systems (GIS) and the mobile phone. Originally developed by and for the US military, GPS technology had long been used for navigation by planes, ships and cars.

But, the GPS application that attracted the attention of local entrepreneurs and practitioners in ACP countries was a small, handheld device that had been designed to enable explorers and rescue workers to determine their exact geographical position. This GPS receiver became immensely popular among hikers, cyclists and surveyors and is now being mass produced for a global consumer market and already widely available in developing countries.

As early as May 2003, ICT Update featured a story from French Guiana reporting that GPS receivers had been installed in ultralight aircrafts for use in the fight against the carambola fruit fly (issue 11). Soon, many other stories about this device began to emerge. Today, in many areas of the Sahel, pastoralists are using GPS with GIS-based maps and mobile phones to discuss with other groups of livestock herders the availability of fresh pastures and water supplies, and to decide where they should graze their cattle in order to prevent overgrazing (issue 15).

In Botswana, traditional hunters and expert trackers use GPS to gather information about local wildlife. Once downloaded onto a solar-powered PC, the data can be displayed in the form of maps, tables and graphs which are used in the design of game management programmes (issue 28).

Influence

In Guinea in West Africa, meanwhile, fishermen have traded in their submachine guns for GPS receivers in an attempt to combat foreign trawlers poaching in their traditional fishing grounds (issue 16). In Jamaica, the Forestry Department is using GPS devices to determine the extent of the encroachment into forest reserves (issue 19). In DR Congo, the technology has enabled Mbdendjele Pygmy communities to work together with international logging companies to protect their forest and its resources.

But possibly the most profound impact of handheld GPS devices has been felt by farmers and their communities seeking formal title to their land. Examples include programmes that are attempting to address territorial disputes (Somaliland, issue 17), to demarcate the boundaries of common lands (issue 42), to gather local knowledge and encourage local participation in natural resource management projects (issue 27 on participatory GIS), and to experiment with the rapidly developing practice of precision farming (issue 30).

Over the years ICT Update has described many exciting projects that used ICT applications other than those based on mobile phones and handheld GPS devices. There have been several reports, for instance, on communities that are using the camcorder to show to the ‘outside world’ their environment and livelihoods as they see and experience them. In combination with other ICT applications, such as YouTube and mobile phone messaging, the camcorder has become a powerful tool for organizing local advocacy campaigns, in particular for groups that hope to gain international support (issue 34).

Other technologies include the radio-frequency identification (RFID) cattle tracking systems that have been introduced as far afield as Botswana and the Pacific island of Vanuatu, in order to comply with the European Union’s traceability requirements for meat imports (issues 15 and 32). Or the combination of digital cameras, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and GPS used by Fruiléma, a Malian fruit exporters’ association, to gather data from farmers in order to meet international export standards. This information is then published on the web to inform supply chain partners as well as consumers (issue 47).

From the perspective of subsequent development policies and approaches, the recent proliferation of locally developed ICT applications represents a unique phenomenon. Directly after the ACP countries gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the former colonial powers embarked on substantial development assistance programmes. Technology transfer was key in their assistance, based on the simple assumption that since technology had brought industrial development to their own countries, it would also produce socio-economic development in their former colonies.

The failure of this so-called ‘great technology transfer’ had a lasting impact on the thinking of the development community, and its legacy is still felt today. Until recently, any trace of technology, let alone technology transfer, was banished from international development policies. Technology as a tool for development did not feature in the ‘basic needs approach’ (1980s), or sustainable development policies (1990s).

Enterprising

In the Millennium Development Goals, technology, or ICTs, is mentioned only in passing. In the national development plans of most ACP countries, technology as a tool for development is mentioned in footnotes, if at all. In fact, in terms of their ‘technology readiness’ levels, ACP countries were totally unprepared for the ICT revolution of the late 1990s, and for the efforts of the international community to connect them to this revolution by improving rural connectivity and promoting the internet for agricultural development.

Over the last decade, however, local entrepreneurs and practitioners in ACP countries have found this connection in a rather unexpected way. Some of them rolled out national mobile phone networks. They could do so because the national phone companies with their stifling monopolies of telecommunication markets were kept at bay; and by offering prepaid phone cards they could offer mobile services to everyone, even the poor. Others followed by developing new services to be delivered via the mobile phone. They could do so because mobile phones have three unique features: they are ‘unpack-and-use’ devices (no need for training manuals), their interfaces are user-friendly and intuitive, and they are cheap.

Manobi, Wizzit and Celpay were the first to see the potential of the mobile phone as conduit to their new market for financial services. Others pioneered mobile services for agricultural development, rural healthcare or education. Yet others combined the mobile phone with other ICTs such as GPS and remote sensing equipment, camcorders, local radio, and so on. And the mobile phone is now being used to bring connectivity and the internet to rural areas.

With more than 200 stories, with substantial online resources with annotated links to related projects, relevant documents and other information, ICT Update has chronicled the evolving uses of ICTs by development organizations in ACP countries. Its online archive has become a seemingly inexhaustible resource with inspiring accounts of creativity, inventiveness and local entrepreneurship. The archive also details many lessons learned in using ICTs for agricultural and rural development, the challenges that lie ahead, and the success that can be expected.

In the 1990s, Africa One was an ambitious project to roll out a fibre-optic cable around the African continent. Finally, in July 2009, the $600 million, 17,000 km undersea cable came ashore in Kenya, bringing broadband internet access to East Africa. Entrepreneurs are already exploring opportunities in the profitable IT services and business process outsourcing sector, and the first call centres have already opened their doors.

By connecting Africa to the global knowledge economy, the cable will provide an enormous boost not only for capitals but also for the rural areas. This time, thanks to the entrepreneurs who pioneered mobile and other ICT services, Africa is far more ‘technology ready’ than it was 10 years ago. ICT Update will continue to chronicle these innovations for agricultural and rural development in ACP countries and beyond.

Web2mail (TechTip, ICT Update issue 10, February 2003)

Web2mail is a system to deliver web pages by email. The tool can be useful for anyone with limited web access. To obtain a web page, an email containing the link to the webpage to be retrieved is sent to a so-called web2email server, which fetches the web page and sends it back, again by email. Web2email services were promoted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their real potential was never realized because their functioning was regularly frustrated by spam attacks.

http://ictupdate.cta.int/(issue)/10

06 August 2009

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