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Harnessing ICT strategies for ACP agriculture

The 2003 and 2005 World Summits on the Information Society called for the development of ICT strategies for all sectors. But more is needed required to formulate effective e-agriculture strategies in ACP countries.

Today, there is barely a community in our ‘global village’ that has not felt the effects of the ICT revolution. Most of these people are now regular users of mobile phones and keen consumers of ICTs. Governments in both the developed and developing worlds have responded by formulating ICT policies, putting in place regulatory frameworks and establishing institutional infrastructures. Their aim is to facilitate and bring order to these e-developments that are rapidly changing the world we live in.

The World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis 2005 aimed to bridge the global digital divide by expanding access to ICTs in developing countries. Agriculture was less of a focus than health and education during these events, but a call to develop ICT strategies for all sectors, including agriculture, was issued at these summits.

Since these world summits, some countries in the ACP group of nations, such as Rwanda, have massively accelerated their efforts and have already advanced from building early e-government trial websites to developing next-generation smart devices and apps. By contrast, other countries such as Nauru and Burundi were much slower to develop e-strategies and risk missing the boat as far as mainstream ICT developments are concerned.

Slow adoption of e-agriculture strategies

e-agriculture is a field of activity related to the use of modern information and communication tools and technologies to increase agricultural productivity and make available information that is relevant to agricultural research, planning, extension, production, monitoring, marketing and trade. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – coordinator of the Action Line for e-agriculture in the WSIS 2003 Plan of Action – has referred to e-agriculture as an ‘emerging field in the intersection of agricultural informatics, development and entrepreneurship’.

Whereas other sectors feature prominently in most ACP countries’ national e-strategies, agriculture is conspicuous by its absence in these policy documents. In its 2010 report National e-strategies for Development: Global Status and Perspectives, the International Telecommunication Union noted that hardly any developing countries had developed and adopted a national e-agriculture strategy, while in contrast ‘many e-government, e-business, e-learning and e-health strategies are in place’. In fact, in 2012 only four countries (Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso) were reported to have formally prepared e-agriculture-related strategies (according to desk research undertaken by CTA in preparation for its ICT Observatory meeting held in April 2013).

Booming isolated projects

The absence of formally adopted e-agricultural strategies does not mean that there is no activity in this field. On the contrary, there is an important boom in ICT-for-agriculture projects in developing countries, triggered by the ever-expanding mobile signal penetration that has already surpassed 90% in South Asia and is rapidly approaching 70% in Africa. Mobile phones are easy to use, are increasingly able to bypass the barriers of illiteracy and affordability, and provide access to a wide range of very useful services, such as transferring money, checking market prices and gathering weather information. And a new generation of ‘smart devices’ such as smart phones and tablets are extending the potential uses of these mobile devices into a new generation of tools for obtaining personal agricultural extension and other professional advice.

With the support of the World Bank, the Nigerian government has distributed a staggering 10 million mobile phones among its farmers. In India, CABI has developed Direct2Farm, a mobile-enabled agriculture infomediary service aimed at making high-quality information readily accessible to farmers, via SMS, voice messaging and apps. This project has successfully completed its pilot stages and is now being scaled up. In Kenya, mFarm provides a very popular market information service to farmers that mobile phone operators failed to reach.

In the Caribbean, networks such as the Jamaica Agricultural Marketing Information System are increasingly making use of mobile phones to deliver their information services, and in the Pacific the National Agricultural Research Institute of Papua New Guinea is working on a project that will gather feedback from farmers through SMS.

However, in most ACP countries, these and other similar initiatives are mostly isolated projects generally implemented on an ad-hoc basis. They tend to lack a clear vision or approach that would ensure everybody in the value chain can actually access their services and help to rationalise budgets and resources. This situation calls for the development of specific coherent ICT strategies for the sector.

Lessons from strategy development

The development of e-agriculture strategies has only been undertaken in very few ACP countries. However, in the overall national ICT4D policy documents adopted by most ACP countries in early 2000s – with support from institutions such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and IICD – agriculture was one of the sectors under consideration. The plan was to develop comprehensive sectoral strategies separately in many countries at a later stage. But in Africa, for example, key agricultural stakeholders were hardly consulted when the sections on agriculture were drafted in the general ICT4D strategy documents. This eventually led to an absence of ownership or follow-up for the development of dedicated e-agriculture strategies.

For example, in Ghana the policy document Implementation Strategy and Action Plans for Modernisation of Agriculture and Development of Agro-Business Industry in Ghana was developed and released for implementation in 2007. A lack of ownership by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, however, meant that there was no follow-up to this strategy. It was not until 2013 that the ministry resumed work on this strategy. In Mali and Burkina Faso the ICT strategy documents for agriculture and rural development were developed in 2011 with the support from UNECA, but are still waiting to be officially endorsed. And in some countries the momentum often petered out because so much time was being taken to formulate the policy documents.

There is a silver lining, however. Ivory Coast developed an e-agriculture strategy document in 2012 thanks to efficient collaboration between the ministries in charge of agriculture and ICTs. Follow-up action is now in progress and a related workshop was held in July 2013.

A new trend is being observed today in some countries working on specific value-chain segment strategies. The segmentation of strategies can be effective, if not planned in isolation, and if ultimately all value-chain segments are dealt with coherently. The specific sub-sectors covered in these strategies may include agricultural extension, agricultural trade and markets, agricultural research, post-harvest and risk management, and improved access to ICTs for agricultural stakeholders

Some of the key recommendations to come out of the 2013 ICT Observatory include improved multi-stakeholder collaboration and stronger ownership by ministries in charge of agriculture, which would support the implementation of effective e-agriculture strategies. These strategies have to be fully in line with current agricultural policies. e-agriculture strategies should be promoted by regional institutions and programmes, such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme. 

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