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Op-Ed

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the field of Agriculture

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By EMN Updated: Nov 20, 2013 9:29 pm
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Imnameren

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]nformation and communication in agriculture have always mattered. Ever since people have grown crops, raised livestock, they have sought information from one another. Where can I buy the improved seed or feed this year? Who is paying the highest price at the market? How can I participate in the government’s credit program? Producers rarely find it easy to obtain answers to such questions. Providing such knowledge can be challenging.Agriculture is facing new and severe challenges. With rising food prices effective interventions are essential in agriculture. The growing global population, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, has heightened the demand for food and placed pressure on already fragile resources. Filling the stomachs of the growing population is only one reason agriculture is critical to global stability and development. It is also critical because one of the most effective ways of reducing poverty is to invest in and make improvements in the agricultural sector.
There is a need for a new revolution that will bring lower prices for consumers. Public and private sector actors have long been on the search for effective solutions to address both the long and short-term challenges in agriculture, including how to answer the abundant information needs of farmers. Information and Communication Technology is one of these solutions, and has recently unleashed incredible potential to improve agriculture in developing countries specifically. Technology has taken an enormous leap beyond the costly, bulky, energy-consuming equipment once available to the very few to store and analyze agricultural and scientific data. With the booming mobile, wireless and Internet industries, ICT has found a foothold even in poor smallholder farms and in their activities. The ability of ICTs to bring refreshed momentum to agriculture appears even more compelling in light of rising investments in agricultural research.
Given the challenges, the arrival of information communication technology (ICT) is well timed. But what exactly are ICTs? And can they really be useful and cost effective for poor farmers with restricted access to capital, electricity and infrastructure?
First, an ICT is any device, tool or application that permits the exchange or collection of data through interaction or transmission. ICT is an umbrella term that includes anything ranging from radio to satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers. Second, these ICTs and others have gained traction even in impoverished regions. The increases in their affordability, accessibility and adaptability have resulted in their use even within rural homesteads relying on agriculture. New, small devices (such as multifunctional mobile phones and nanotechnology for food safety), infrastructure (such as mobile telecommunications networks and cloud computing facilities) and especially applications (for example, that transfer money or track an item moving through a global supply chain) have proliferated. Many of the questions asked by farmers (including questions on how to increase yields, access markets and adapt to weather conditions) can now be answered faster, with greater ease and increased accuracy. Many of the questions can also be answered with a dialogue where farmers, experts, and government can select best solutions based on a diverse set of expertise and experience.
One of the best examples of ICT services is the use of mobile phones as a platform for exchanging information through short messaging services (SMS). ICT enabled services often use multiple technologies to provide information. This model is being used to provide rural farmers localized (non-urban) forecasts so that they can prepare for weather-related events. In resource-constrained environments especially, providers use satellites or remote sensors (to gather temperature data), Internet (to store large amounts of data) and mobile phones (to disseminate temperature information to remote farmers cheaply) to prevent crop losses and mitigate effects from natural adversities. More-specialized applications, such as software used for supply chain or financial management are also becoming more relevant in smallholder farming. Simple accounting software has allowed cooperatives to manage production, aggregation and sales with increased accuracy.
Importantly, ICT is not an end to agricultural development. The excitement generated by ICTs as they spread throughout developing countries has often marked the fact that their contributions to agriculture are both rapidly evolving and poorly understood.
Five main trends of the use of ICT in agriculture, particularly for poor producers are expected to continue shaping the prospects for using ICT effectively in developing-country agriculture.
a) Low-Cost and Pervasive Connectivity
The pervasiveness of connectivity to mobile phones, Internet and other wireless devices is due to a number of factors, including decreases in costs, increases in competition and expansion of last-mile infrastructure. Mobile phones are in the vanguard of ICTs in agriculture. The ability to purchase a low-cost mobile phone is complemented by the expansion in telecommunications infrastructure; most countries now have more than 90 percent of their population served by a cell phone signal, including coverage in rural areas.
This rapid expansion results from enabling regulations that ensure competition in the telecommunications sector as well as from high demand for mobile phone subscriptions. The reach and affordability of broadband Internet is also improving dramatically though somewhat slower in developing regions. Smartphones, which include 3G mobile services with remote Internet connection will increase access to information even to poor farmers.
b) Adaptable and More Affordable Tools
The proliferation of adaptable and more affordable technologies and devices has also increased ICT’s relevance to smallholder agriculture. Innovation has steadily reduced the purchase price of phones, laptops, scientific instruments and specialized software. Agricultural innovation in developed countries has become more applicable to developing country needs. The intuitive design of many technologies and their capacity to convey information visually or audibly make them useful to people with limited formal education or exposure to technology.
Mobile-based applications are also becoming more suitable for poor and isolated communities, especially though feature phones. Drawing on simple, available technologies such as SMS, service providers can offer mobile banking, other transactional services (selling inputs, for example) and information services (market price alerts). Other publicly and privately provided services such as extension and advisory services are delivered over mobiles, which are increasingly not just “phones” but are actually multifunctional wireless devices.
Geospatial information is also becoming easier to access and use as mapping tools, such as Microsoft Earth or Google Maps, bring geographical data information to non specialist users. Scientists and development organizations have created substantial sets of geo referenced data on population, poverty, transportation and any number of other public goods and variables through more affordable, usable geographic information systems available on standard PCs and mobile devices using web-based tools. Satellite images and similar representations have improved exponentially in quality and detail. These tools and remote sensors use less energy and require less human attention than in past years. The capacity to overlay geospatial information with climate and socioeconomic data opens many options for analyzing biophysical trends (such as erosion or the movement of pathogens), making projections (about the effects of climate change or the best location of wholesale markets in relation to transport infrastructure) and selecting particular groups to test new technologies or farming practices (for instance, identifying farmers that are most likely to benefit from using e-vouchers to purchase fertilizer).
c) Advances in Data Storage and Exchange
With increased data storage capacity and the ability to access data remotely and share it easily have improved the use of ICT in agriculture. Sharing knowledge and exchanging data have created opportunities to involve more stakeholders in agricultural research involvement facilitated by an improved e-learning environment and networking capacity. Advances in data storage and sharing have improved the ability to exchange information for instance, between departments and levels of government and avoid costs associated with data transmission charges.
Improvements in data storage and sharing have underlying causes. The capacity of hard drives and the speed of microprocessors have continued to rise, making it dramatically cheaper to store data. Cloud computing offers access to numerous shared computing resources through the Internet, including sharable tools, applications and intelligently linked content and data. These advances address some of the information and communication constraints of agricultural research institutions, government offices, cooperatives and development organizations. Benefits of enhanced data capacity range from more accurate targeting of agricultural development programs to better preparation for handling surpluses or scarcities at the farm level.
d) New Business Models and Public-Private Partnerships
Development and use of ICTs originated in the public sector but were quickly dominated by the private sector when their profit potential became clear. The public sector maintains great interest in ICT as a means of providing better public services that affect agriculture (for instance, land registration, forest management and agricultural extension services) as well as for connecting with citizens and managing internal affairs. Private sector involvement in some of these efforts has enhanced the access, affordability and adaptability of ICTs for development. Unlike other development strategies, which often struggle to survive or be scaled because the public sector cannot fund them, development strategies featuring ICTs have benefited from growing private sector interest and public demand.
Entrepreneurial nature of ICTs attracts new partnerships and forms of investment. Mobile phone applications, software design, local language customization and remote transaction services represent only a fraction of the opportunities for continued innovation. Private companies that have invested in technology and applications are often interested in working with the public sector to provide their products and services to smallholders. Mobile network operators, for example, can invest by providing large text packages at a lower price, collecting premiums, distributing payments or participating in extending networks to rural areas. Commercial enterprises such as processors, input suppliers and exporters are also motivated to invest in ICT because they often lead to increased efficiency and revenue as well as extensions to client bases like isolated farmers.
New forms of business incubation and knowledge brokering are also contributing to ICT in agriculture. The private sector has a keen interest in investing in firms that come out of such incubation schemes, speculating on the ability of an innovative idea to expand into a highly profitable enterprise. Incubators identify additional investors and other suitable partners, including technical experts. In many instances, they develop enterprises through which private and public providers of agricultural services collaborate to deliver products more efficiently to farmers; in developing, sharing and capitalizing on innovations for agricultural development, they almost always use ICT and often develop new ICT tools.
e) Democratization of Information, the Open Access Movement and Social Media
Democratization of information and science facilitated by ICTs is also contributing to agriculture and rural development more broadly. Vast quantities of information held by institutions and individuals are becoming visible, publicly accessible and reusable through the open access movement. Many governments and organizations such as the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research are aiming to make data like national surveys or research findings publicly available. These actions have not only improved transparency and accountability but have invited the public, private and research sectors to participate in solving long-term economic and social problems, including those involving agriculture.
The expansion of open access software also enables grassroots community organizations to share knowledge with one another. Social media like Facebook once used purely for entertainment has great potential to be used for knowledge sharing in agriculture. Finally, crowdsourcing in which scientists, governments and development organizations request feedback from farmers and consumers through devices like mobile phones is also facilitating agriculture development. Farmers can use SMS to send critical local agricultural information like incidences of pests or crop yields that was previously difficult to obtain without expensive surveys by researchers. Using the digital tools available, consumers can also provide information related to changing consumption patterns and tastes to private enterprise.
Use Appropriate Technologies
Attractiveness of the newest ICTs can lead to a preference for the latest technologies at the expense of older technologies (such as radio), yet the newest, most elaborate or most innovative technology is not automatically the most appropriate one. Moreover, an innovative mix of technologies (for instance, radio programs with a call-in or SMS facility for feedback) can be the most cost-effective solution. Well-reasoned assessment of the tradeoffs between the added cost of a technology or service and benefits relative to other options (technological and other) is important.
Wide coverage of mobile devices reduces but does not eliminate these tradeoffs. In considering the appropriateness of technology, assessing the human capital available for developing and disseminating the ICT device or application is critical. The more complex the technology, the more training and (qualified) extension support it will require. In environments where infrastructure is not conducive to a particular instrument, other means should be used.
Finally, it is important to recognize that these newer technologies do not automatically replace the more traditional forms of communication, knowledge sharing and collective action that have evolved within a given community or region. In designing ICT interventions, it is necessary to research and understand local information and communication practices, barriers to ICT-enabled empowerment and priority information and communication needs of end users. Using conventional information and communication tools to address the needs of those who cannot access the ICT because of limitations related to literacy, isolation and social norms is often required.
Compt. Programmer
KVK: Nagaland University
Lumami

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By EMN Updated: Nov 20, 2013 9:29:40 pm