09 April 2008

AgInfo systems as pathways out of rural poverty

Last year Cornell University and partners put together a 'WorldAginfo' Design Team to test the premise that "new collaborative information technologies offer an exciting opportunity to transform agricultural education and information systems in Asia and Africa."

The Team was charged by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to explore the landscape of agricultural education and information systems in Asia and Africa, and to come up with "a set of recommendations for areas of investment that have the potential to improve the lives of smallholders through better access to agricultural education, training and information."

The 300+ page report - entitled Building Pathways out of Rural Poverty through Investments in Agricultural Information Systems - is now available online. It provides a summary of the activities undertaken and recommendations for areas of investment.

As the report authors point out, the "scope of this project was vast, covering two continents, multiple stakeholders all along the agricultural information chain, and all aspects of agricultural information from soil fertility to marketing mangoes."

They conclude that "while many factors affect the productivity and overall success of smallholder farmers, it is clear that lack of access to agricultural information presents one of the important barriers. It is also clear that there are many creative and innovative initiatives already underway, so there is ample opportunity to have impact by building on ongoing success stories as well as experimenting with new approaches."

The wide ranging process - literature reviews, surveys, site visits, workshops - generated 12 main proposals. These have some common themes and principles:
  • The content, value, and quality of information and knowledge are not improved just because information is offered in multimedia or over the Internet. The importance of quality control is almost more critical the more accessible and ubiquitous information becomes.

  • Building in extensive feedback mechanisms at all levels from all sources is critical. This can help address the issue of quality control and strengthen the smallholder voice.

  • It is important to enable smallholder access to a wide range of support systems so that as many men and women farmers as possible are reached.

  • Many of the proposals cite programs that are already making a difference, and could offer a model or potential partner for future collaboration. Investments should capitalize on existing successful programs and innovative organizations, rather then reinventing the wheel.
It is not known whether the Gates Foundation will invest in these areas. Nevertheless the report brings together an immense amount of experience and information, and it highlights and examines many of the areas where ICTs can - and are - making a difference to small holder agriculture. Including, for example, market information systems, working with community knowledge workers, multimedia instruction, collaborative content generation, access to literature, mobile phones, and community radio.

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