What was your first experience of ICTs being used to improve the livelihoods of farmers?
In Nigeria the use of radio to broadcast agricultural information dates back to independence. In the 1980s several radio and TV stations were devoted to broadcasting agricultural information. They did not last long, but their impact was tremendous. Today, radio stations broadcast information aimed at farmers on specific days and times, and some of the airtime is paid for by the government and NGOs. The use of mobile phones is a more recent phenomenon that has grown rapidly in the last five years. Gradually, however, the use of internet is growing through initiatives such as the Fadama project which supported by the World Bank.
How do farmers usually get the information they need?
Most smallholder farmers get the information they need through farmer-to-farmer contacts. However, this situation is changing in areas where there are agricultural programmes with in-built funding and support for extension activities. The Fadama project, for example, includes a fund to enable farmers to pay for extension services.
Information on how to raise productivity is readily available. What farmers lack is information on matters such as farm inputs, food processing and preservation, product packaging and marketing. Market information is the most critical, as farmers are more willing to accept productivity-enhancing measures if they are sure of the market and the price. The implication is that extension agents who are unable to provide such information need assistance and support.
Do most farmers now get at least some agriculture-related information via ICTs?
Yes, most farmers can obtain information related to subsidies, credit facilities and market prices via radio, TV or mobile phone. The trend is that in non-government funded programmes, extension agents and facilitators who communicate agricultural information to farmers now receive a monthly allowance for recharging their mobile phones.
In the coming years, ICTs will be the major source of information not only for farmers, but also for extension agents and research institutes. In many areas farmers and middlemen use their mobile phones to check prices at different markets before deciding on a price or whether to conclude a deal.
How can ICTs help extension workers deliver information to farmers?
ICTs can enhance the outreach of agricultural extension workers by enabling both one-way and two-way communication. Radio, TV and video can reach many farmers simultaneously, thereby reducing costs per capita. The mobile phone is already gaining ground as a cheap and powerful tool for extension workers to more reach farmers, particularly those living in difficult or remote regions.
How can ICTs be used to gather data from farmers so that future information services are the needs of farmers?
It is now common practice for extension workers and data gathering agents to collect information from farmers via mobile phone. Many farmers’ groups, after some training, collect data over a specified period, complete data sheets, scan them and submit them as email attachments. The farmers are requested to send the completed forms to a designated cybercafé, which then completes the sending process. This practice is expanding as researchers use it to link up with farmers who are part of the research.
The use of mobile phones is growing rapidly in many ACP countries, but can they provide all the information farmers need? Does more need to be done to bring other ICTs, including the internet, to rural areas?
Despite the increase in the use of mobile phones for disseminating information, they do have some limitations. Their information storage and retrieval capacity is small, particularly in relation to the large size of files in video format. The internet will remain a cheaper and more reliable option for the foreseeable future, as it allows the transmission, storage and retrieval of large volumes of information. Governments should therefore do more to directly encourage private operators to provide reliable internet facilities in rural areas.
Are you optimistic that ICTs can help farmers to improve their livelihoods in the long term?
Expectations are high that ICTs will indeed have a positive impact on farmers’ livelihoods. The available evidence suggests that the use of ICTs to access information is a major determinant of the level of farmers’ incomes. But as useful as ICTs are in getting information to farmers, they do have one drawback. Face-to-face interactions between extension agents and farmers, and the associated empathy that is needed to understand and explain new ideas and concepts under farm conditions, will be very difficult to replace.
National Fadama Development project
The NFDP covers 12 states in Nigeria and tries to improve agricultural production, productivity and to contribute to food security to people living in fadama areas; the Hausa name for the flood plains and low-lying areas along Nigeria’s river system.