February 2007

Network to consolidate rural communites

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Agri-telecentres integrate relatively isolated communities into national and international information networks, develop the rural and remote infrastructure, thereby improving local administration and foster socio-economic development.

Introduction

Telecentres, also known as 'Multipurpose Community Centres', 'Community Technology Centres' or 'Technology Access Community Centres', are public locations offering a variety of communication accessories to the public for information dissemination. The concept, first initiated in Sweden around 1985, grew to more than 250 centres during the last 10 years in the Europe and other developed countries.  Subsequently, telecentres have been successfully introduced and established in developing countries especially for the development of rural communities. Based on the location (developed/developing country; rural/urban area), these centres work as agents offering a wide range of facilities and services like providing technology, developing human capacity, encouraging socio-economic development etc. As community information centres, they supply access to databases, receiving and posting information to local people on matters concerning spread of diseases, weather, prices of farm products, educational opportunities etc. The practical, gainful and cost-effective services accessible to the rural society through these community centres have resulted in positive impact on the socio-economic development of the rural population. 

Agri telecentres

Of the various sectors that are benefited by telecentres, agriculture development has been in focus for quality practice disbursement by aiding in a two-way communication between farmers of selected regions and networking for local problem solving and natural resources management.  Though familiarity of conventional practices exists within farmers through media information, they require details on important matters such as, managing diseases and pests, prevailing market price of the crops and livestock management. The expertise and information available elsewhere rapidly disseminated to the local farming community through the centre, ensures timeliness of solution, and accurate details on the prices, arrivals and market trends for proper sale and trading of their produce, without the involvement of the middleman. Thus, integrating relatively isolated communities into the national and international information network develops rural and remote infrastructure. For the public, useful information on educational matters, occupation, land holdings by farmers, variety of crops cultivated, crop and livestock production, marketing constrains etc., are made accessible for improving local administration to generate employment and foster socio-economic development. 

Telecentres are equipped with computers and Internet connectivity with the focal point to facilitate exchange of knowledge between farmers, community groups, research institutes and intermediary organisations online or through information stored in electronic form. Web-based tools and a range of other media are used to store information for the benefit of the stakeholders to communicate with each other. An expert committee of scientists, farmer experts and other agriculture extension workers contribute to the details needed by the farmers on various issues.  Such electronic information is promoted through websites, database creation and discussion forum by the government (www.agmarknet.nic.in), non governmental organisations and income-alert private organisations. The website act as gateway to search the database and the discussion forum help farmers to ask questions to experts for their opinions. Documentation of the interaction in on-line databases allows technologies or methodologies to be continually updated by incorporating user feedback. The information is made available in local language as well as in English and in different forms like brochures, videos, extension leaflets and power point presentations for effective communication in places where Internet connectivity is weak. To the uneducated villagers, the required information can also be downloaded as audio files and played.

Advantages

Telecentre offers economic facilities the rural population is looking for on a market for the procurement of subsidised agriculture seeds by directly interacting with companies. The service rids the high handedness of the middleman and offers affordable attractive price-performance ratio. The 'anytime-anywhere' advantage ensures marketing leads to the farming community by discovering efficient price for agricultural trading transactions.  The information on grain price interests agricultural workers especially women who receive part of their wages in grain. Thus many rural developmental agencies are attracted to these centres to deploy appropriate websites for defining the market for agricultural produce.

Challenges

Theoretically, agricultural telecentres and websites with precise, latest, relevant content should be universally successful. Critical user conditions arise due to particular demographic, geographic, cultural, social, psychological, economic and other factors. Extremely precise local needs and the great diversity in local conditions have been the major challenges facing the targets of the telecentres. These specifically include the low use of textual information due to poor literacy rate; dependence on middlemen due to remote locations; lack of sources of information due to diversity of regional languages and their dialect and the cost of technology.  Initiatives to set up Internet kiosks in rural India were not successful because kiosk operators lacked a large revenue stream as many of them were set up only with eGovernance applications in mind. Bad traffic at the websites, when compared to the actual activity in the physical world has been another experience. Barriers to information actively imposed by the architects and website designers also affected information dissemination. In spite of a core value proposition and significant investment by the Indian government, many NGOs and other agencies in developing portals connected with agriculture have failed due to limited Internet interchange on these websites.

Few success stories from south India

  • M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, Tamil Nadu: is a research-oriented non-profit organisation. In collaboration with the International Development Research Centre, it is backing Internet, voice, and database access to rural villagers in Pondicherry (www.ejisdc.org).  The MSSRF telecentres give daily news, employment news, meteorological report, vegetable prices at farmer's market, acquisition price of paddy varieties, purchase price of crop varieties, fertiliser and pesticide stock and details of transport and seed at godowns.  Since Tamil is the main language of rural people, the personal computers in each village information centre have software with Tamil fonts.
  • Samaikya Agritech P. Ltd: a company in Andhra Pradesh was incepted in 1999 and put into action in June 2000. Its head office in Hyderabad has 18 net connected 'Agritech Centres' supervised by qualified agricultural graduates, in five districts of Andhra Pradesh. The centres provide technical assistance, inputs (seeds, fertilisers and pesticides), machinery hire, tools and spares for sale, analyses of water and soil, weather monitoring, field mapping etc in addition to field examination to farmers on commercial basis. Farmers register with centres and obtain technical information in support of their farming activities.

  • Rural Agency for Social and technological Advancement (RASTA), Kerala: the agency is working in Wayanad district of Kerala from 1987. Apart from tackling general problems of rural community, it focuses on sustainable agriculture promotion activities. The Village knowledge centre, established in 2004 through community based organisations owned by the women groups and farmers, facilitates interaction at group level for the farmers to share. In 2006, the centre upgraded as a Telecentre by ECCP programme of EU, serves as an e-Argi learning centre. The website in Malayalam, the local language, provides good practices along with details of specific crops cultivated in the area.

  • Kisaan-kerala Karshaka Information Systems Services and Networking: established in 2004, is a project of the Department of Agriculture, Government of Kerala and run by the IIITM-K and Kerala Agricultural University. It uses Information Technologies to establish a farmer centered integrated distributed information system to collect, share and disperse relevant and significant information to farming community to  improve agriculture growth and farmers' well being in Kerala. It supports an interactive regional agricultural portal (www.kissankerala.net), runs a weekly Malayalam TV serial 'KISSAN Krishideepam' and an agriculture call centre to answer farmers' inquiry over phone.

Future Prospects

Successful telecentres have maintained an efficient team of specialists to clarify doubts, suggest solution, interact and give confidence to farmers. Its sustainability is essential to bridge the knowledge management gap in agriculture. 

The rural community has the aptitude to absorb new technologies if they are important to them. Intel has introduced a new Personal Computer that can run on alternate power sources such as car battery with, special technology to endure adverse weather conditions including heat, dust and humidity. Microsoft has plans for 50,000 telecentres with very small aperture terminal Internet (VSAT) connectivity to rural India where telephone connectivity is not available, in the next three years through bank financing. Availability of these facilities should guarantee information flow through telecentres to villages and the community should be encouraged to pay for the services they are benefited. This will ensure innovation and responsiveness with stability and public participation for increasing the number of people, who are otherwise excluded, into the information network.  This will strengthen and sustain telecentres making them user-friendly and customised to specific user groups of different geographical areas. Thus, solutions to local language and dialect issues can be found overcoming the present obstacles of failure of governmental websites.  

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