Information and communication technologies (ICTs) generally refer to an expanding assembly of technologies used to handle information and aid communication. ICTs enable individuals to create, collect, process and manage information in different ways (voice, text or image). There is scarcely a field of human activity today that has not been touched by the dramatic changes in ICTs. The use of ICTs in agriculture in ACP regions, for instance, is progressing, with growing appreciation of the importance of increasing access to information.
However, challenges exist to using ICTs in this field, such as: erratic power supplies; fluctuating networks; high costs of ICT infrastructure; low incomes of rural farmers; lack of policies to enhance ICT development in rural areas; and a lack of necessary skills to use the technologies. Despite such problems, opportunities abound in terms of adoption of novel agricultural practices promoted through ICTs, and more farmers in the ACP region have developed their ICT literacy via extension training, increasing the use of such technologies. Further, ICTs are considered to be transforming agricultural extension through enabling greater access to text, graphics, audio and video files in an integrated manner.
Over time, the permeation of ICTs into agricultural extension practices has provided a platform for extension workers and farmers to communicate from afar, and to enhance the provision of information and new technologies. With greater access to such information, farmers are able to improve their production, incomes and standards of living.
In Nigeria, the federal government is currently focused on revitalising agricultural extension services by empowering and equipping extension workers with IT skills to support farmers in the areas of: digital farm mapping; soil type identification; meteorology and agricultural records. The establishment of farmer helplines by the National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services to provide support for planning, production, storage and distribution of crops, livestock, and fisheries products is also changing extension practices in the country in terms of service delivery.
Studies conducted in Nigeria show that the majority of extension personnel have access to computers, radio, telephones, television and video recording equipment, which they could put to use in the provision of all their activities if provided with the necessary training, infrastructure and funding. Indeed, positive changes have been recorded in the use of ICTs by extension officers, who acknowledge that the issue of farmer reach has been abridged to a large extent through the technologies. And, whilst the use of ICTs has not been totally adopted by extension officers in all their activities, there is hope that, in the next few years, the technologies will be absorbed into the majority of extension duties on a large scale.
In 2012, the Federal Government of Nigeria introduced the Growth Enhancement Support (GES) scheme, which was designed to deliver government-subsidised farm inputs directly to farmers via GSM phones. The GES scheme is powered by e-Wallet (an electronic distribution channel), which provides an efficient and transparent system for the purchase and distribution of agricultural inputs based on a voucher system implemented by public extension services. The scheme provides registered farmers e-Wallet vouchers with which they can purchase fertilisers, seeds and other agricultural inputs from agro-dealers at half the usual cost – the remainder being covered by the federal and state governments in equal proportions. About 20 million farmers have benefitted from this scheme, which implies that awareness of the benefits of ICTs in agriculture is increasing, but that teaching in the use of technology is required, through extension, to harness the rewards.
ICTs vs traditional extension
Considering the urgent need for continuous and up-to-date agricultural information by farmers, the use of conventional communication channels as entrenched in the training and visit (T&V) extension approach, such as farm/home visit, personal letters, and use of contact farmers for disseminating agricultural information, is becoming less effective. This has prompted the use of ICTs as a faster medium for communicating agricultural information. However, T&V extension methods and ICTs can be used interchangeably for optimum effect.
In cases where the T&V approach is still being used, ICTs serve a complimentary role. Extension officers can, for instance, use ICTs to propagate agricultural techniques taught during T&V. ICTs can also be used by extension officers to monitor farmers’ progress in terms of adopting such techniques, and serve as a channel for farmers to seek advice in the instance of any problems.
One such application that requires traditional extensions methods is RiceAdvice, which was launched by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’s Centre for Green Innovation in 2016. The aim of the smartphone application is to bolster rice yields in Nigeria and Mali by generating optimum fertiliser rates for farmers, and increase youth employment by training them on how to use the app and implement it with farmers in the field. Currently, the application is used by public sector extension agents who provide production recommendation printouts to individual farmers.
Women’s inclusion in extension
The Women-in-Agriculture sub-component of Nigeria’s Agricultural Extension Programme (ADP) was designed to source, adapt, generate and disseminate agricultural information for the purpose of increasing food production, maintaining food value and raising the income of women farmers. The aim is to improve and raise the standard of living for rural women. The institutional framework of the ADP has been designed to achieve this aim by employing female extension workers at every level of operation – from state headquarters down to the villages – in every state. These women work directly with women farmers, identifying and organising them into groups, then registering these groups as cooperative societies. As cooperatives, the women farmers have better access to farm inputs and credits than they would as individuals.
Until now, the rate of ICT use by rural women farmers has revealed the constraints they face when it comes to taking advantage of such technologies. A number of gender studies have shown that the main ICT users (especially computers, the internet and e-mail) are young men, and that women are marginal users, suggesting a gap between discourse and the reality of women’s empowerment through ICTs. However, more women have access to ICTs with their increasing availability, enabling extension officers to reach them directly without depending on the influence or ownership of ICTs by the men/husbands. Despite this, those women who are not financially independent of their husbands usually have to ask them for help towards maintaining the ICTs in question, which could pose a threat to their effective use by women.
ICTs for the future
To further support extension practices with ICTs, certain conditions need to be put in place. Provisions should be made for subsidies in phone recharge cards and internet subscriptions to increase affordability for farmers at all times to seek information on agricultural practices. More so, erratic power supplies and network fluctuations should be reduced through the development of necessary infrastructure to better serve rural farmers.
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