The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) confirms closure by end of 2020.
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20 years of ICT Update: Looking back to look forward

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In 2004, in ICT Update issue 18, Rutger Engelhard, former coordinating editor of ICT Update, painted a picture of a day in the life of an agricultural extension worker in Kenya in 2020. The picture was hopeful: extension workers would have state-of-the-art technology, allowing them to link up mobile devices with satellites to receive the latest information, collect field data and conduct real-time analyses. Although the technology Engelhard dreamt of may not be available to the wider public at that scale, thanks to ICT solutions, a lot has changed in the past decades for extension workers, smallholder farmers and the agri-food sector across the ACP region.

For this issue, we reflect back on almost 20 years of ICT Update (nearly 100 issues). ICT Update’s objective has always been to capture contemporary developments in ICTs for agriculture; the trends, latest technologies and stories from the field. By looking back, we can see significant changes in the ICT4Ag landscape, and draw lessons on how to move forward and address ongoing challenges for inclusion, adoption and innovation. In this issue, we highlight three recurring themes in ICT Update: learning; barriers for inclusion and adoption of ICTs; and innovation and entrepreneurship.


In 2003, when ICT Update had its first dedicated issue on extension (issue 14, Agricultural Extension), the question already arose how ICTs were transforming agricultural extension. ICTs were shown to be broadening the range and increasing the quality of extension services, despite limited web access and ICT tools at the time. It was predicted that traditional ‘Training & Visit’ extension, based on linear information flows, would not survive the digital revolution. Instead, multi-channel learning through ICTs would significantly change the extension landscape.

In 2009, the possibilities for interactive multi-channel learning were becoming visible through rural radio (issue 49, Livelihoods). Taking advantage of the increased adoption of mobile phones in rural regions, Farm Radio International (FRI) had been experimenting with strategies to make radio more interactive, through SMS, MP3 recorders and voice messages on air. Ten years later, FRI looks back at their African Farm Radio Research Initiative and the continuing relevance of radio in an increasingly digitised environment. It seems the prediction that ICTs would change the extension landscape was right; radio, being an entrenched technology, continues to be reinvented, making use of opportunities new ICTs offer. Likewise, interaction between extension agents and farmers is more interactive and digital information is more timely, accurate and tailored. Dr Ekwe Agwu of the Department of Agricultural Extension at the University of Nigeria discusses the extension landscape in Nigeria today, and the opportunities and challenges of ICT adoption for and through extension services.

ICTs thus continue to create new opportunities for interaction, knowledge exchange and learning. In 2016, issue 81 (The power of online communities) explored the power of online learning communities – or Communities of Practice (CoP), such as DGroups or CTA’s Web2forDev. Drawing lessons from different CoPs CTA has hosted over the years, Giacomo Rambaldi of CTA shows how WhatsApp has served as a platform for the Africa Goes Digital CoP of over 30 African start-ups in Unmanned Aerial Systems (or drone) services.

Barriers for inclusion and adoption

Despite the many opportunities ICTs offer, barriers for large-scale adoption and scaling of ICT4Ag initiatives to reach rural populations as identified back in 2003, remain an issue today with poor ICT infrastructure and power supply, (digital) illiteracy and high costs of services. Tim Unwin, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, argues that access to internet and digital technologies is fundamental for the inclusion of the rural poor in development. In 2013, ICT Update dedicated its Small Islands and e-resilience issue to the specific challenges small islands states, such as the Pacific, face in accessing the web. Pacific islands rely heavily on public investment for network development, and advancement of the digital ecosystem differs widely between different islands. ICTs are, however, key in overcoming the geographic barriers that have hampered development in the past. Sheikh Izzal Azid and Varunesh Rao of the University of the South Pacific shed light connectivity challenges for the Pacific.

In addition to the fundamental need for inclusive access to ICTs, Unwin also argues that in order to truly benefit and emancipate rural poor populations, ICT solutions need to be designed by them, not for them. With 40-50 % of Africa’s smallholder producers being women, the inclusion of women in this process is non-negotiable. Throughout the years, ICT Update has focused on women’s empowerment through ICTs, gender in ICT initiatives and women-led initiatives on ICT4Ag. In 2004, for example, ICT Update presented the winners of the 2003 GenARDIS small grants fund, which was set up to support grassroots level work on gender-related issues in ICT4Ag. Between 2002 and 2010, GenARDIS selected 34 grantees from 21 countries from over 900 applicants, divided over three rounds. GenARDIS jury members of the first hour, Helen Hambly Odame and Dorothy Okello, look back on the GenARDIS project and the continued need for gender-inclusive policies and practices.

Innovation and entrepreneurship

Digital innovation in support of agricultural transformation can enhance social inclusion, not only of women, but also of youth, through the creation of jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities in the agricultural sector. Discussing the findings of the 2019 CTA/Dalberg report on Digitalisation of African Agriculture Ben Addom highlights the need to address structural barriers for scaling of digitalisation and ICT4Ag by scaling investments beyond the donor community. The public sector is key in creating an enabling environment, but the private sector is needed to generate innovation and build on sustainable business cases. As such, all three major players (public, private and donor community), provide push and pull factors for entrepreneurship and employment through digitalisation in agriculture. These push-pull factors are captured in the framework for youth employment and entrepreneurship in agri-food systems developed by CTA and Wageningen University and Research. Hello Tractor is an example of how an innovative technology solution can, with the right support and business cases, support smallholder farmers, create employment and generate revenue for scaling and further development.

A new phase

ICT Update developed from a series of observatory meetings looking at the use of new information and communication technologies in agriculture and rural development in ACP countries. To keep stakeholders updated, an email newsletter was established in the 1990s, which developed into a printed magazine, a website, a CD-ROM, live events, a Twitter account and Facebook page. Over the years, ICT Update has reached tens of thousands of readers. The articles have been used for various purposes, such as for teaching in Kenya, for developing strategy documents by the Malabo Montpellier panel, and at field level by book clubs, such as the one run by WOUGNET in Uganda.

Over time, the topics ICT Update has covered have changed; using machine learning to analyse the articles, the latest review of ICT Update online shows that different regions have had differing issues and priorities. Telecentres developed at some scale in East Africa in the early 2000s but Small Island States have only in the last two years benefitted from full internet connection. Articles from West Africa have shown more concern with inclusion issues and those from East Africa on data and policy issues. We will examine these trends and methods of supporting ICT development through new forms of communication in a forthcoming workshop as this present phase comes to an end with our final issue of ICT Update at the end of 2019. As ICT Update closes with one final issue to come we ask you to send your feedback on how you have used it, how it has been useful and what you think is needed to identify and communicate the use of ICT in agriculture. 

Feedback can be sent to Didier Muyiramye at CTA:

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CTA is an international organisation established by statute, with headquarters in the Netherlands. Its mission is to advance food security, resilience and inclusive economic growth in ACP countries through innovations in sustainable agriculture. Throughout the last decade, CTA has been at the forefront of identifying cutting-edge technological innovations, promoting digital literacy and skills, and providing training and capacity-building for agricultural stakeholders to innovate and utilise digital agricultural solutions.

Past issues

ICT Update N. 91

Next-generation ACP agriculture - innovations that work

ICT Update N. 90

Women and Digitalisation in Agriculture

ICT Update N. 89

Data4Ag: New opportunities for organised smallholder farmers

ICT Update N. 88

Unlocking the potential of blockchain for agriculture

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