Dady Demby discusses various aspect of ‘enabling environment’, including how to create a balance between public and private financing to build ICT infrastructures.
In the last issue of ICT Update, your colleague Ifidon Ohiomoba said that the ‘Enabling environment’ stream at the ICT4Ag conference aimed to explore ways of accelerating the exchange of knowledge through ICTs in the agricultural sector. Do you believe this aim was accomplished?
Yes, one thing that has clearly emerged at this conference is that there is a plethora of initiatives going on in different places. People are increasingly aware that they are often doing almost the same thing as others, just in a different location. So they need to look more closely at what is being done and where. This is the starting point for linkages, for collaboration. Right now, people’s energy is scattered all over the place. We need to bring people together so they can try to focus their efforts in the same direction. They need to pool their strengths and resources. This is the only way we can achieve more – and better – results.
Another key point is that policies need to be in place to enable ICTs to play an effective role in agricultural development. Did your stream sessions discuss this issue?
Yes, in fact there are examples of certain countries that are moving in that direction. The number of countries developing such policies is on the rise, such as Kenya, Ivory Coast and Rwanda. Awareness of the importance of these policies is also increasing. These kinds of meetings, which bring large numbers of people in the field together, are real eye openers.
Participants learn from people who have already put these kinds of policies in place. They say to themselves, ‘They did it – so why can’t we?’ That’s one way awareness is enhanced, so in that respect this conference has been encouraging. Participating in sessions like these is an opportunity to learn a great deal from your peers and build confidence. It gives us a chance to see what is going on and network with people who have already developed ICT policies. So I am convinced that something will come of these conference sessions in the end, based on their specific needs and areas of interest.
Did the sessions explore different investment possibilities for mobile ICTs, especially in rural areas?
We had private telecom operators – such as Catherine Flouvat, CSR manager at Orange – attend one of the sessions, so we discussed this issue in detail. It became clear that there are areas where public finance is really needed because the private sector is unwilling to commit when the return on investment is so low. Think of issues related to building infrastructure in rural areas, for example, where there’s little chance of any return on investment.
So we need public funds. But there is another way. Public–private partnerships can generate the necessary investments to improve the penetration rates of ICTs, by bringing broadband to rural areas, for example. I was amazed at the map of broadband reach in Kenya shown by one of the presenters. Broadband was mainly available in many urban areas, while huge portions of the country outside the cities remain unconnected. Most people tend to think that Kenya is well connected, but this map actually painted a different picture. There’s a great deal that needs to be done to make broadband more widely available.
Did the sessions focus on the skills that citizens have or need to take advantage of ICTs for agricultural development?
Yes, we need to increase capacity building. When we develop and introduce new technologies, we need to ask ourselves from the inception who we are targeting and whether they have the capacity and skills to use these ICTs. One participant commented on mobile phone penetration, saying that high penetration rates are well and fine, but are we also looking at how these mobile devices are being used by end users? They could be using them for social purposes, to call friends and family to see how they are doing, but meanwhile these devices can do so much more. So we need to find out whether people are using these devices to their full potential. Penetration, reach, end users – these important factors are all interlinked. The capacity to use technology is a key issue.
What is being done to establish appropriate guidelines to help communities of practice use ICTs for agriculture?
Well, I would like to start by mentioning something else that was raised in our sessions first, something that is often overlooked, namely environment. The basics need to be in place before we can talk about the next level of needs. Electricity supply needs are part of an enabling environment, for example, just to name one.
As for communities of practice, I view them as an opportunity. If we manage to find the appropriate tools to suit their needs and expectations, then that will already be a step forward. This is one of the things we are looking at here at FARA: the use of mobile devices by stakeholders in the value chain through the establishment of ‘innovation platforms for technology adoption’. These platforms are using a value chain approach to facilitate access and disseminate new agricultural technologies to producers.
We want to see how best these mobile technologies can be used to respond to the needs of all the stakeholders in the value chain as they communicate, exchange and interact. How can we make mobile devices relevant to them and respond to their needs as a community of practice? There is much room for improvement in terms of making these tools relevant to these communities.
The title of this issue of ICT Update is ‘Making it happen’. Are you confident that participants of this conference will take home what they’ve learned here and actually make things happen?
Oh yes, I’m certain of that. Take Ivory Coast, for example. It sent representatives from its ministry of agriculture to the conference, and one of the commitments they have made here is that when they go home they will hold a national ICT4Ag meeting. Ivory Coast has already been developing a national strategy, but this conference has helped them to open their minds again. They will be taking home new ideas and new perspectives that will improve what they are already doing. And a number of other people I have met here are thinking along the same line.
Other participants have told me that they have seen applications and technologies here that respond to a specific need they have. And others have said experiences have been shared here that remind them of their own situation. So I’m convinced people will go home and try out these new ideas.
Is there something you would like to add?
One thing that I would like to mention – which in my opinion is crucial – is political will. We’ve seen examples of countries, such as the host of this conference, Rwanda, that have undergone tremendous change. Look at the progress Rwanda has made, and it’s all the result of strong political will. One presenter mentioned that most African countries have enough resources to do what they want to do, but the political will is lacking. Finding ways of influencing policy and decision makers is crucial because if there’s no political will then even if you have all the resources you need, financial and human, the whole process is bound to be mismanaged.
What we need is sensitisation. We need to create awareness of the potential of ICTs and the potential of agriculture. We need to get leaders to understand. As Agnes Kalibata, the Rwandan minister of agriculture, said here at the conference, her country’s president, Paul Kagame, believes in the power of ICTs. He made this clear at the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali held on 28–31 October 2013 when he spoke of equipping African youth with ICTs to speed up development and innovation. For a leader at that level to make that kind of a statement shows that he has understood something. We need more African leaders to reach that level of understanding, to make similarly bold statements. And more than that, we need them to take action and make things happen.
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