28 August 2008

Only connect? Listening to farmers is key factor for success

The "Only connect?" session at the 2008 IAALD conference in Atsugi, Japan provided the opportunity to hear firsthand from those working with ICTs with farmers in rural areas in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The ICT environment has changed significantly in the last year. Low cost laptops have developed following the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) project. Mobile phones are falling in price and offer laptop features. Hosting on the web is often free and an increasing number of web2.0 applications provide a wide range of free or low cost services. Wifi and affordable satellite connection are enabling better and wider connectivity. Moreover, a myriad of applications combine and blend different technologies and also provide access in remote locations.

Together with these technical changes, the policy environment is also evolving, as governments see the value of being connected and being in communication with their rural populations; business sees the value in engaging with rural communities as markets for telecommunications products; users are more aware of the opportunities of technologies and are ready to make the best out of them, as African mobile phone use demonstrates, showing the greatest growth of any market in the world.

In the different examples discussed in the session, there were similar elements in the approaches.

The Connect Africa project, recognizing that power is the key constraint to ICT use, has been using a zinc air fuel cell which provides a locally produced opportunity to produce cells which can power mobile equipment. This way, they provide a public payphone, which supports SMS services and allows farmers to use the systems as they wish, but through an operator, who provides a feedback service. The demand for the phone illustrates that there may be a market for cellular operators, convincing them to extend connection and offer cheaper access than the satellite. Sustainability can be ensured by marketing services to government and business on the back of the payphone service.

An example from the Caribbean showed the use of voice over internet phones. Having experimented using Skype with a PC, the project managers realized a plug in internet phone was easier to introduce. The project negotiated special costs for farmers providing subscriptions at $5/month including free SMS and lobbied to allow VOIP use.

The Pacific has special circumstances in relation to the use of ICTs for agricultural information, where infrastructure, resourcing and geographical isolation have led to the emergence of Radio, TV and satellite transmissions as the main communication platforms. Using Internet over HF radio and exchanging video and audio on tape have been the interventions used for farmers to access information. Experience has shown that in such projects, it is essential to support capacity building, disseminate information based on needs and to undertake information analysis including social and cultural concerns.

Across the seven presentations during the whole session, constraints, approaches, benefits and drawbacks of ICT adoption in rural communities where also discussed at length.

Constraints included a lack of information infrastructure, access and costs, and a clear need for content; in same cases, knowledge sharing may be limited by culture, language and literacy.

Successful approaches began with people, not with technology: “listen to the farmer” was a common call, as only true participation can lead to collective ownership and management. In several cases, public private partnerships have reduced costs and the need to lobby for policy change was emphasized by many of the speakers.

Drawbacks of ICT introduction still include costs, change in social structures and an increased demand on governments and on individuals from their extended families.

Finally the benefits for farmers providing access to markets, farming knowledge, access to resources. Efficiency benefits come with improved communication, saving unnecessary trips and economic benefits for a country can be substantial.

by Chris Addison

See presentations from the session / See video interviews with session speakers and resource persons.

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