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Can ICTs aid small-scale farmers?

There are many reasons small-scale farmers in developing countries need special attention. They grow a good portion of the planet’s food while suffering potential environmental and economic catastrophe. They also provide a large amount of jobs. Farmers and their families are often located far from population centers, making trips to the market, the school or the hospital difficult.

With so many local, regional and international development organizations working with farmers, the possibilities for information and communication technologies (ICTs), are great. Still, the question remains: Can these technologies live up to the hype and actually help raise human development levels?

One point of optimism lies at the heart of Web 2.0 technologies or “the participatory web” according to a 2008 report by Annemarie Matthess and Christian Kreutz for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, called “Participatory Web – New Potentials of ICT in Rural Areas” [PDF]. They write:

The participatory web offers new ways to translate and bridge language domains. Users publish themselves and can engage in a dialogue. One such result is that knowledge becomes more explicit – bridges are built between the local and global knowledge. Worldwide agriculture research cooperation has a long experience in this field and results show how difficult it is to translate global scientific knowledge to the local context.

For all the great potential of ICTs in rural areas, Tanzanian-based journalist Emmanuel Onyangoin in his blog Knowledge Matters warns the challenges facing technologies in rural areas remain high:

Studies shows that, rural farmers do not have direct access to the internet in rural areas pending on a number of factors. The basic ones being the increased computer illiteracy among users and an unreliable infrastructure such as electricity.

Wikis and scientific information

One popular method to increase farmer productivity is through wikis, the often plain-vanilla collaborative websites that provide easy editing features, made popular by sites like Wikipedia.

Wikis are an easy way to exchange ideas over the web, allowing people in different locations to write, edit and disseminate documents on low-bandwidth sites. Wikis can be used with other platforms, such as maps or photographs, not only to collect data but also enabling users to participate in vetting the information.

Sharing Knowledge Tag Cloud

One such wiki is the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which allows people in laboratories and those working in the field to disseminate a wide-range of information that can be constantly updated, amended and assessed.

The Communication Initiative Network explains that the Knowledge Sharing toolkit has three main pieces:

1. A library of tools, meaning web-based software (e.g., blogs, wikis, instant messengers, podcasting) and offline physical tools that can be used with a variety of methods.
2. A library of methods, meaning group processes that people can use to interact with each other, online or offline (e.g., appreciative inquiry, storytelling, knowledge fairs).
3. A set of perspectives and guidance that can help users choose tools and methods for their needs and contexts. Some examples: How can I organise meetings differently? How can I plan, monitor, and evaluate my activities/projects? How can I improve relationships and collaboration between regional offices and the headquarters?

The Knowledge Sharing Toolkit began as a means to keep up with the explosion in scientific knowledge, which has been facilitated by the expansion of the internet and peoples’ increasing access to information. The libraries are not written for scientists, however. Rather, generalists can update their basic skills so they can better communicate with scientists, funders, partners in the field or immediately leverage new ideas in their communities.

Maps and food security

It’s been argued that one of the major components of food security is getting produce to market. Bad roads and poor transportation infrastructure are often the culprits. To solve some of these issues at the local level is iMMAP, which began using GIS technology more than a decade ago to locate landmines. They’ve moved on to help guide crisis responders in a number of different countries.

From the ICT-KM blog at Cgiar, a new project is explained.

Throughout most of the developing world, there is a real and urgent need for roads data. Road location and attribute information can play a vital role in long term development applications and also help humanitarian agencies with short term emergency and logistical planning. Despite this dire need, though, popular web mapping service applications have not explored the roads less travelled in much of the developing world. No tourists, no maps!

From that blog post, a question and answer session took place with Olivier Cottray, who spoke about gRoads, an Ethiopian-based project mapping roads with GPS-enabled PDA devices and how it will support local farmers.

The rationale of the project in the context of farming is that the better roads data will help agencies and organizations that are supporting farmers to look at accessibility to markets. Location information is also being collected for infrastructure of importance to small holder farmers such as irrigation equipment; water reservoirs; community grain storage or fertilizer warehouses; and agricultural extension offices.

Video and overcoming low literacy

Some practitioners argue that video blogging is one way to overcome a few of the hurdles facing ICT technologies in rural areas. By posting video or audio files, bloggers immediately overcome literacy issues. Also, they can speak directly by using local languages that may not be common on the internet.

Brenda Zulu, in her blog, ICT Journalist, investigates how video blogging works in Ghana with an interview with Prince Deh, the Assistant Country Director of Ghana Information Network for Knowledge Sharing (GINKS).

Vlogging major challenges were listed as connectivity or access and getting people to share Information and Knowledge and cost of equipment.
From my his own view, Deh said Web 2.0 tools were important and even more important because of the deeper impact the tools would have on marginalized societies, even if these impact are not immediately felt.
He observed that many more rural communities have stories to share with the larger public and voices to amplify and saw Web 2.0 tools as perfect applications to project the voices of the rural poor in the future.

“How do we solve the problem of rural connectivity in order to extend the benefits of Web2.0 tools much wider beyond the scope of the cities?” he asked.
He pointed out that it was important to have knowledge of video editing and innovativeness in order to create story telling videos.

Deh says the images increase the popularity of video blogs because they make them engaging. After filming a video, they can be embedded into a blog, so people can comment on them.

Development groups like them because they are cheap to make and disseminate. One popular video from GINKS explained to farmers (in a local language) how to use their mobile phone to get market information.

Lessons Learned

Throughout much of this Future of ICT for Development series on Global Voices, I have strived to put forth a well rounded debate on the positives and negatives of these technologies. Mostly I have tried to answer whether ICTs can raise human development.

One drawback has been that it is hard for me to find those who are skeptical or cynical regarding the potential of ICTs. I'd like to include these next three comments solely for the purpose of debate. They happen to be a response to a 2007 Web2forDev blog post regarding the participatory web and development. What makes them interesting is that these comments provide healthy skepticism (if not criticism) of ICTs affecting development levels in rural areas. I add these comments not as a critique on the above projects; rather, I think ICTs as tools of development need to be debated in the open.

The commenters pose a few questions: Are the stories presented in these blog posts or series like this the norm or just an aberrations? What role, if any, will ICTs play in raising living standards?

From Pankaj Gupta:

I think a lot is made of how ICTs can help in development and poverty reduction. I live in India, have worked extensively in participatory digital video and sustainability research, and travel a lot to the ‘poorest’ districts of the country (that makes up nearly most of the country!) and can say with the confidence that comes from first hand observation that the poor are far far away from using the web. The examples are merely examples: rare exceptions that voluble techno-freaks amplify, only to mislead a lot of us into thinking that information technologies can do any good to the poor. If probed deeply, any of these examples would not pass the test of affordability or sustainability once the artificial support on which an experiment is flaunted is removed. People caught up in day-to-day survival have no inclination or energy or access to link up with the web and profit from it.

From Andrea:

I have been working extensively in Africa and I quite agree with you. I have seen very few villages with electricity, less with PCs and even less or none with internet connection but I think that this is also one of the thing we should still work on it.
On the other hand I still see a huge potential for web 2.0 in Aid. Web 2.0 has a strong potential for collaborative work and I think that international organisation should start using it as soon as possible.

From Ignatia/Inge de Waard

I agree with both Andrea, Pankaj and [post writer]Holly that only a minority of people are connected in developing areas. But just like Andrea I believe in web2.0 as a strengthening evolution. Because of the participatory strength of web2.0, I believe that even if only a minority will use the participatory web, this will make a huge difference on developing areas. If any change can be done, change must be stimulated by those target people. Only by their knowledge essential changes will take effect.


  • Some very interesting points. I think it important to mention that the technology most accessible to rural farmers will probably remain to be mobile voice and sms services for the next few years. Should we not also be asking how we can better integrate high tech ICT solutions with simple mobile phones on the ground?

  • Very nice points! I feel quite attracted to the thought of believing that web 2.0 could be a way to support positive social change in the poorest areas. However, as you point out there are obvious problems in terms of accessibility etc – but I’m thinking: is this really the only level of criticism in the debate? I have not been able to find any other discussion than this… I find it unlikely and peculiar…

  • […] 目を通したトピック中の一つに、Can ICTs aid small-scale farmers?という題名で、情報共有を促進するWeb2.0ツールにより農民が農業技術や天候などを知ることが容易にり、生産性を向上できるといったことなどが書いてあった。でも自分の興味をひいたのは、ICTのメリットそのものよりも、最後の方に述べられている「本当に農民がICTの活用で裨益するのか?」という点。「ICTの可能性は認めるが、途上国の田舎に住む農民は、ICTにアクセスできる環境にない者が大多数である。」という指摘などが紹介してあった。 […]

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