CARICOM turns to ICTs to transform Caribbean agricultural production
The Caribbean Community is transforming its agricultural sector into a competitive and sustainable system of agricultural production and services in which ICTs will play a vital role.
Agriculture is a priority sector for the 20 member and associate Member States of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Their vision for the agricultural sector entails a complete transformation towards a market‐oriented, internationally competitive and environmentally sound system of agricultural production and services – one that provides improved food and nutrition security, especially for vulnerable groups. ICTs and their many applications can play a vital role in realising this ambitious vision.
This vision has been set down in a number of policy documents, such as the Community Agriculture Policy, the Regional Food and Nutrition Security Policy and several supporting strategic policy frameworks, such as the Agribusiness Strategic Plan. One of the key imperatives of these policies is the adoption of modern knowledge and information systems to improve decision making and encourage interaction among all players in the value chain. These systems should also link R&D and extension efforts at the national, regional and international levels, and attempt to increase their impact on the entire agricultural sector in terms of adaptation of ICTs and other technology advances.
Bridging information gaps
A key challenge faced by farmers and agribusinesses is a lack of knowledge about markets, sources of technology and business support. ICTs could be used to fill these information gaps. For example, cellular networks and value-added services that can be accessed through these networks, have spread throughout the entire world. The speed of this diffusion and the variety of uses to which these networks have been put is indicative of the pent-up demand for more rapid and effective communication, even in the smallest and poorest communities.
Market information gaps exist even within internal markets in the Caribbean region. The building of market information systems is therefore critical to ensuring that farmers and agribusiness persons are able to make the right decisions, plan ahead and link up with the necessary markets. Linking producers to regional and external markets means setting up robust market information and intelligence systems, which must be funded largely by the public sector.
Crucial to this issue is the need for ICTs to gather, store and analyse, and subsequently disseminate information. Traditional extension services depend very much on there being a sufficient number of trained technicians to service a manageable number of farmers, and that those workers have the required budgets to do their work properly, even in remote villages. These extension services, if they ever existed, will probably become a thing of the past. There now is a critical need to build up digital databanks and translate technical information into user-friendly advice that can be accessed by farmers and agribusiness persons.
The CARICOM region’s limited progress in the field is probably best illustrated by the sporadic presence of governments, regional institutions, NGOs and even established businesses on the web. These websites consist mostly of static web pages and are often short of relevant information and often lack the essential tools for communicating, doing business and engaging in national and regional dialogues.
Innovative ICT initiatives
Notwithstanding the many challenges, there are some encouraging innovative developments specific to ICTs in the Caribbean. For instance, at the policy level, the CARICOM member states recently approved a Regional Digital Development Strategy which is a modern strategy seeking to capitalise on existing national initiatives and amplify them for regional benefit. Additionally, funding has been acquired from the EU-funded Intra-ACP Agricultural Policy Programme to reinvigorate the development of a regional agricultural marketing information and intelligence system, and work has started to develop the necessary capacity for such a system, at both regional and national levels.
National initiatives include Trinidad & Tobago’s National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (NAMDEVCO), which has a mandate to improve marketing and investment in the country’s agro-industrial sector. NAMDEVCO has developed a National Agricultural Market Information System (NAMIS) which provides reliable and real-time information to farmers, processors, retailers and institutional buyers. Among the many innovations introduced by NAMIS is the use of hand-held devices for capturing data, which reduces the errors normally associated with data collection.
Another national initiative is the government-operated Jamaica Agricultural Marketing Information System (JAMIS), which provides regular updates on over 50 agricultural products. JAMIS provides weekly updates on prices, availability and quality of agricultural produce on its website, where visitors can subscribe to a service that sends these reports to them by email.
Various other innovative mobile applications are emerging in the academic world and through the work of private developers. These applications range from providing safety and weather information, to linking fishermen at sea with buyers for their catches. Others provide ‘real-time’ key information for specific fruit trees throughout the year.
Meanwhile, the CARICOM Secretariat has created a Caribbean Agribusiness website with an ambitious agenda. This website is meant, eventually, to be a major internet portal integrating existing initiatives and relevant institutions, such as ministries of agriculture, producer organisations, agribusiness associations and inter-governmental organisations, to name a few, and serving as the hub for all matters in which business persons (at all scales of operation) have an interest – up-to-date information, statistics, trade and investment opportunities and policy issues. Caribbean Agribusiness is also meant to fill the information gap that currently exists in terms of all sorts of agricultural information but is not meant to replace or supersede any existing information service.
The importance of embracing ICTs by the CARICOM’s agricultural sector cannot be overstated. Both public sector institutions and the private sector have to show leadership if the mandates to increase production and promote trade and food security are to be met. We have to explicitly recognise the role that ICTs play in the practical lives of producers and consumers alike and build on best practices within and outside of the region, and we must mainstream ICT-related activities into the various institutions’ ongoing programmes.
Since every business, country and region depends on the flow of knowledge – from production processes through to marketing techniques and the sale and purchase of goods via the internet – investing, or the lack of it – in ICTs can have a ‘make or break’ effect on the ability of CARICOM to remain a viable, sought-after partner in the global agriculture arena.
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