Farmers in Southern Africa, like elsewhere in Africa, are faced with problems of how to access timely and up-to-date technical agricultural information.This is mainly due to, among other reasons, a lack of adequate frontline agricultural extension officers, poor flow of information to and from farmers, and inadequate communication between research institutions and extension services. This is one of the major challenges the agricultural sector is facing in Southern Africa.
Agriculture plays an important role to the economies of Southern African countries. Agriculture contributes significantly to about 35% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of most SADC member states. In addition, agricultural exports are a major foreign exchange earner, contributing on average 13 per cent to total export earnings and constituting about 66 percent of the value of intra- regional trade. In countries like Zambia, the sector absorbs about 67% of the labour force and remains the main source of income and employment for most rural women who constitute 65% of the total rural population.Therefore, good performance of this sector is vital for food security, employment, eradicating hunger, alleviating poverty, controlling inflation, promoting economic growth and stabilizing economies.
Agriculture-led development is fundamental to cutting hunger and reducing poverty, thereby achieving some of the important millennium development goals (MDGs).
Agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of the GDP, while for others, such as South Africa, it contributes less than five percent. Despite the importance of agriculture in the Southern African region's economy, this sector has been in constant decline during the last decades. The agricultural sector is confronted with major challenges related to production and marketing in order to harness its growing and increasingly prosperous population and availability of natural resources. With an estimated annual growth of only 1.5 percent, agriculture is lagging behind demographic growth.
However, guaranteed growth in agriculture means offering opportunities for improved livelihoods for the rural communities. Realizing that these opportunities require compliance with more stringent policy framework, strategies and regulations, there is an increasing need for the private and public sector to get more involved with emphasis on policy and innovations.
In the above circumstances, new approaches, technical innovations as well as policy implementation commitments are required to cope with these challenges and to enhance the livelihoods of the rural population.
ICTs in Agriculture
It is clear that ICTs have brought to the fore, new ways of doing things. There is realization that ICTs should be integrated to be effectively used in agriculture development as facilitating tools to boost its impact to the lives of farmers. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have shown evidence for easier access to markets and information resources. The role of ICTs to stimulate agriculture, enhance food security and support rural livelihoods is increasingly recognized and was officially endorsed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 2003-2005. The computers, internet, geographical information systems, mobile phones, as well as traditional media such as radio or TV stimulates participation enhances value to productivity. Evidence of the contribution of ICT to agricultural development and poverty alleviation is becoming increasingly available. In the past two decades, a number of international agencies suchTechnical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and its partners have been involved in projects and policy support programmes and consistently monitor the progress and impact of the use of ICTs in agriculture.
Due to opportunities and unique services community telecentres and local multimedia centres do provide to the rural communities in Africa, the role of these local entities should be embraced in order to achieve much talked about universal access and stimulate regional economic development. Telecentres provide facilitating roles to agriculture development such as market information access, issues of climate change, and centres for knowledge and information exchange. They also provide a huge potential for knowledge centres and e- governance services as well as avenues for ICT awareness and literacy for the local communities. As such telecentres should be adopted as main catalyst role for agriculture in urban and rural areas of Southern Africa.
Policy implementation challenges
One of the key challenges in many countries in Southern Africa is making things happen as regards to ICT policy processes. Past experiences suggest that governments are often slow in ensuring that policies are implemented once they have been launched. In most cases wide consultation and engagement of relevant stakeholders in implementation is lacking. According a SADC protocol on Information and Technologies of August, 2001 signed in Blantyre – Malawi, SADC member states undertook to ensure that ICTs do not increase the disparity between men and women, rural and urban. In regards to agricultural development, a number of policies have and projects have been developed. These include: Under the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in member countries have been implementing the Livestock Information Management System (LIMS); The SADC Ministers of agriculture in 2004 approved the formulation and implementation of an “Agricultural Information Management System” (AIMS); e-RAILS platform, to serve as information and knowledge portal providing access to information held in institutional e-repositories. More so, various countries in Southern Africa have started integrating ICT into Agriculture through various regional and local programs.
However, a huge gap still remains. The absence of clearly defined implementation strategies; lack of sustainable-networked content management and knowledge sharing strategy; low ICT literacy levels and lack of access to ICTs; and absence of effective public private partnerships working towards the successful integration of ICTs in agriculture, among other issues, have been an impediment in the successful integration of ICT in agriculture, with a greater emphasis on agricultural extension and rural advisory services.
Telecentres as hubs for Agricultural Knowledge
Multipurpose community telecenters5 (MCTs) have received a lot of attention from many international development agenciesand other players in the development community, as potential vehicles for a wide variety of social and development services,beyond purely expanding access to ICTs. Telecentres are today considered one of the most successful means to promote ICT diffusion in the developing countries. They increase the access of people to ICT, particularly the poor and people living in remote rural areas. The telecentres help local communities improve their business performance: they allow the local enterprises (agricultural co-operatives, handicraft industries, artisans, shops, garages and tourist facilities) to gain access to accurate market and pricing information. Through the Internet and other information transmission systems they can become aware of new market opportunities and also benefit from the training and access to the knowledge networkprovided by the telecentres. Farmers can also access current meteorological reports, information about the spread of animal and plant diseases, pests and their control. In the low-income areas the shared cost solution of a telecentre is probably the only viable option to provide diffused ICT access.
Telecenter studies from across the world have shown that for telecenters to have a real impact on development, facilities and services must be done as an integral part of a cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary effort of community development.According to a United Nations Development Program document (UNDP, 2001), numerous telecenterstudies report nonuse of services by the targeted local population due to the lack of understandable and relevant content. The identification and generation of relevant local content is reported to be of great importance for sustaining community interest in the telecenter initiative.Theimportance of content provision for telecenters must go beyond international initiatives such as the World Bank Development Gateway and emphasize the importance of grassroots research, such as community needs assessments, for the generation of contextually appropriate content. The basic assumption in most of the studies and reports are that once useful content in the local language is available in the telecenters, the centers can act as a knowledge hub for the local population, who can either directly or if required, through the telecenter intermediary appropriate that knowledge for their living.
With this inspiration, participants of the just ended SATNET Forum Management and Development Workshop adopted as top priority the provision of Agricultural Information through a strategic agricultural knowledge initiative which will be part of the Content Management, Services and Knowledge Sharing Component of the Network Development Strategy. In this case telecentres in member countries will play a great role in ensuring content and services is accessed by local communities especially those in rural areas. With the need readily available, SATNET implores service providers in the agricultural and ICT sectors, governments and other stakeholders to come on board.