February 2005

ICT And Agriculture In Africa

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While some African countries could be reported to have benefited fully from their agriculture industries, some countries are not realising the full benefits. Instead, we continue seeing countries becoming more and more impoverished.

Agriculture sector the world over is said to be the backbone of every nation's economy. This is because, as compared to other industries such as mining and others, agriculture in non replenishable. The production of good abundant crops helps produce and maintain a country's food security and contributes towards a nation's economic performance.

Therefore society needs to utilise its agriculture industry to improve its economic standards by employing workable strategies that could address the challenges of this sector.

Overview of agriculture sector in Africa
While some African countries could be reported to have benefited fully from their agriculture industries, some countries are not realising the full benefits. Instead, we continue seeing countries becoming more and more impoverished.


When it comes to making agriculture work, Southern African countries such as Zambia have their own problems. For instance, most indigenous farmers in Zambia are small scale farmers and do not have the capacity to farm big, as they do not have adequate farming inputs such as fertiliser and seeds. This has resulted in a situation where serious commercial agriculture is pursued mainly by wealthy people especially, foreign investors who enjoy the monopoly of the business.

Lack of information about markets where they could sell their produce is another problem faced by small farmers. This is usually in the case of the farmers who stay in far-flung areas where there is severe crisis of communication. In most rural areas, there is no ICT infrastructure. At some places even if Internet is present, it is either expensive or rural dwellers do not have the skills to use it. Some unscrupulous business people have taken advantage of this and tried to coax the farmers into selling their produce at throwaway prices. The lack of communication infrastructure is a problem faced by most African countries. Though there are rural areas, which are slowly getting connected through ICT's like phones, TV, and Internet but largely the potential of ICTs remains untapped. Today, ICT's hold the key for bringing transformation in the society.

ICTs can help local farmers in gaining access to international market. e-Commerce can help both the seller and the buyer to communicate in less time and use Internet to carry out a transaction. Farmers can research on new types of products and search for information about ways in which they could package their produce better.

If a farmer is effectively able to use ICT's, he stands to benefit more than one who is unable to. This is because, soon there will be a situation where the farmer would not even have to go looking for the market but people would easily contact him and make their orders and the farmer would eventually be transformed from a local seller to a large international exporter.

From this transformation, the nation and the youths would benefit as more jobs would be created with increase in demand, more production and enhanced efficiency. This would also help retain the youths in rural areas as they would get work in the farms and their need to relocate to the cities would be decreased.

Successful agro-business projects
Some of the ICT and Agriculture projects that have recorded success in Africa include the Zimbabwe Agro-business project where a woman in Zimbabwe has successfully built a dried food repackaging business by using e-Commerce to sell to Zimbabweans diasporas in other African countries. Her neighbours, the rural women in Gwanda, a place situated about a100 kilometers away from Bulawayo, in Matabeleland used to bring dry vegetables and edible caterpillars for sale in major cities of Zimbabwe. The women would spend a long time away and business would not be so well because everyone would do the same business, leading into oversupply in the market. But this exceptional woman started to buy the products from her rural neighbours and packaged them hygienically and advertised on the Internet. She has now grown to be a big exporter and is at present supplying her produces to the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Europe and the United States of America.

Another similar project that has shown a good example of how ICT's could work for Agriculture is the 'Volunteer Efforts in Development Concern (VEDCO)' of Uganda's Luwero district. It is an association that uses ICT's to bring information to small-scale farmers on how they could add value to their produce by producing them in different forms, to widen the market. This association has so far learnt a number of ways in which they could package their crops to suit international markets and has been able to add value to the potatoes using information retrieved from the net. Apart from packaging the potato in form of dried flexes, they process it into flour and sell in that form. Sometime, using the same flour, they bake scones and cakes, to sell. The same potato is also processed into a vitamin content using the green leaves, which could also be dried and packaged as vegetables. With such value added, the same plant is sold in different forms and brings in a lot of money, as opposed to it being merely sold in one form.


 

This exceptional woman started to buy the products from her rural neighbours, packaged them hygienically and advertised on the Internet. She has now grown to be a big exporter and is at present supplying her produces to the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Europe and the United States of America.


The association also uses Internet to get market for the crop after packaging it in different forms. This has led to its strong presence in the international markets of USA and other countries. It is possible to replicate these initiatives in other African countries and improve people's livelihoods. Drawing from the examples of agriculture projects that have engaged ICT's, it has been noticed that ICT's are improving the status of agriculture today than ever before.

Sometime back, there were only government information agencies in charge of disseminating agriculture information about what crops were in demand, production levels, fertiliser prices, etc to give farmers direction and enable them to grow the right crops for the season and market. This was done through publications in different languages. Untimely information was a big problem. As such, information has until relatively recently been somewhat limited but with the coming of new ICT's such as computers, Internet, etc, things have changed and we see daily publications and updated information being readily available on the net.

Various ICT tools can play different beneficiary roles in agriculture, but for Africa to realise the full potential of ICT's there is need to use a wide range of ICT's for different activities. ICT's such as radio, TV, video projectors, Internet, email, computers and newspapers can be used to improve the sharing of agriculture information by remote rural farming communities. Participatory communication technologies can support agriculture extension efforts, especially using local languages, rural radio programmes, video projectors, email alerts, video shows and brochures covering information about the local area.

The first set of connection can be the extension of rural connectivity telecentres and cyber cafes, where producers could either go to use a computer or simply see posted information on paper. Like the United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan said, “new technologies are not a panacea or a magic wand, but they are without doubt immensely powerful tools for development”. For agriculture, ICT's are a way to reach greater heights. It is worth harnessing the full potential of ICT's to improve agriculture sectors in Africa. For indeed, this is an industry that will never be replenished.

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