If a peasant can send a 40-page trade document from Tanzania to Cuba for just 40 cents of one US$, there is no doubt that modern ICT are cost-effective and hence efficient in poverty reduction.
Much have been said about how the ICT can be used to reduce poverty, improve lives and empower people. However, in Africa where majority of population is rural, how modern ICT can effectively enhance the livelihood of small-scale farmers who form the spine of most African economies.
With a population of 34.6 million, Tanzania resembles most developing countries particularly in sub-Saharan Africa that suffers from economic problems due to rampant rural poverty and poor performance of agricultural sector. Proper application of modern technologies, like biotechnology and ICT, can rapidly reduce these problems, says the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its 2001 Human Development Report (HDR). However, some new technologies particularly biotechnology should be applied with great care, cautioned the UNDP emphasising that risks accompanied by new technologies need to be assessed case by case.
CROMABU for small farmers
Though the idea existed since 1999, the founders of the Crop Marketing Bureau (CROMABU) in Tanzania premeditated the UNDP 2001 HDR and in September of the same year designed a project to gather and disseminate relevant information regarding crop prices in local and international markets. Basically the project (www.cromabu.com) is aimed at empowering small-scale farmers economically by enhancing their access to price information and insights in trade flows.
Apart from motivation by the UNDP report, the project was established to respond to demands for alternative options after government withdraw from direct involvement in crop marketing and production in rural areas. Tanzania like many past socialist states embarked in economic reforms from 1990s that paved the way for cooperation with international donors particularly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The international donor community imposed conditions for credit facilities. Among these is liberalisation of markets and structural adjustments.
The central and local governments loosen their control on micro- economy to concentrate on macro-economic mana-gement and hence allowing the prices of farm inputs, produce and livestock to fluctuate freely. These reforms had to deal with an apparent real exchange rate appreciation that is partly associated with the reduction in real producer prices of main export and food crops. It helped in reducing inflation rates and as a result the costs of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides increases while the costs of most agricultural products decreases. This means peasant farmers with few assets are at risky of falling deeper into poverty, resulting in low agricultural production.
Another effect of the reforms is that small-scale farmers are unable to compete with large-scale agricultural operations and powerful importers. Moreover, what seems to draw serious concern from the rural producers' position is the modus operandi and stability of the rural institutions as they grow out of the reforms. State monopolies that covered retail and wholesale trade, agricultural marketing (state marketing authorities and co-operatives) have been exposed to unfair market competition.
Meanwhile, the marketing of agricultural produce, extension, supply of inputs, input subsidies, and pricing continue to fluctuate. Local markets for traditional cash and food crops, livestock and other farm by-products are few and although private operators (including middlemen or madalali in Kiswahili) are able to enter this new market system, most are too profit-minded and careless about producers' poverty plight.
Deemed as the spine of the economy since independence from Britain in 1961, the agricultural sector is poorly performing and its current contribution to GDP is only 50 per cent though it employs over 70 per cent of labour force in Tanzania. According to government statistics, an overall, real agricultural GDP has been growing at an average rate of only about 3.5 per cent per annum since 1981. The current crop marketing system does not guarantee enough returns to complement production costs and hence discourages small-scale farmers who constitutes the bulk of producers in this sector. Even the few large-commercial farmers are discouraged by agriculture and trade policies. The Ministry of Agriculture said in March 2001 during the national agricultural conference, that the sector faces a multitude of problems, which hamper its rapid growth. According to the ministry, the problems includes low priority accorded to agriculture in public resources allocation and disbursement; poor rural infrastructure; farmers' limited capital and access to credit; inadequate support services; weak and inappropriate legal framework; land tenure and tax policy.
Covering 937,062 square kilometers of country size, Tanzania has a huge potential for agriculture with an estimated 43 million hectares suitable for farming. However, only an average of 6.3 million hectares are cultivated annually mostly by small-scale farmers. Large-scale commercial farms account for less than four per cent of all farms in Tanzania.
ICT and CROMABU
While stakeholders in agricultural sector are demanding the government to ensure a fair-competition policy, for agricultural marketing and distribution, CROMABU is levelling the ground by use of modern ICT to empower farmers.
Based in Magu area of Mwanza near to the southern shores of Lake Victoria, the four-year old CROMABU project is supported by the Dutch International Institute for Communication Development (IICD). It is steered by a board of directors composed of local and foreign ICT experts and businesspersons. It is managed by Mrs. Naomi Massele, a professional agriculturalist with experience in management of rural agricultural and industrial projects. The manager is answerable to the board of directors.
According to Mrs. Massele, CROMABU comprises three components. These are the Internet cafe that serves the targeted community; the price information services; and community development through information and training. She said 16 villages are the main targets of the project though the information circulates further.
The youth, particularly primary and secondary school leavers are employed as a channel of communication between CROMABU and the targeted small-scale farmers in Magu. Information on crop prices gathered from local markets and prices of foreign markets downloaded from the Internet sources are compiled by CROMABU and stored in a database.
Eventually a simple price index is prepared in Ki-Swahili language and disseminated to farming villages. CROMABU distributes market statements with price index regularly. The youth take them to targeted villages using bicycles provided by the project.
Another communication method used is through the CROMABU community-training centre for peasant farmers and youth groups. The youth trained by this centre are charged fees but could pay part of it through temporary employment by collecting data from the local markets. They are also engaged in information dissemination to farmers. The CROMABU's development phase will end in September 2006 and is regarded by IICD as a pilot project to be replicated in other rural areas with crop marketing problems.
ICT fighting against poverty
Poverty remains the greatest problem in Tanzania like most countries of the Sub-Saharan region. Most of these countries face huge external debts and their social services are weak. More than half of 49 Least Developing Countries (LCD) are in Africa and like Tanzania most have formulated Poverty Reduction Strategic Papers (PRSP) to please donors and get aid.
Currently, the World Bank supports 25 active projects with commitments of US$1.7 billion in all major sectors in Tanzania. Despite these efforts, Tanzania is still poor with a per capita income of about US$290. Nevertheless, according to the World Bank and other development partners, the government's firm commitment to poverty reduction, led to a couple of development results, which brought the country closer to reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) :