How ICT innovation can help farmers improve productivity

ict Gibson Mhaka
IT appears there is some hesitance in embracing the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe.

ICTs have helped accelerate Zimbabwe’s economic growth in sectors such as education, health, financial services and trade.

However, ICTs have not yet fully found a place in the agricultural sector where they can improve productivity and augment incomes of the agricultural households in the country.

A recent report by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says agricultural yields in Sub-Saharan Africa have been mostly stagnant because of limited adoption of ICTs.

However, this is despite the fact that the importance of ICTs in development process was long recognised and made one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals which emphasises the benefits of new technologies, especially in the agricultural sector to reduce poverty.

A Bulawayo-based Information Technology (IT) expert Maxwell Nkomazana said ICTs-enabled farming is a complex web of activities that can “revolutionalise” the way agriculture information is generated and disseminated.

He said it can help farmers make informed choices like which crop to sow, when and where to sell the produce.

“Accomplishing this call requires the implementation of a complex set of policy, investment, innovation, and capacity-building measures and other partners, who will encourage the growth of locally appropriate, affordable, and sustainable ICTs infrastructure, tools, applications, and services especially for the rural farmers,” said Nkomazana.

By definition ICTs are basically information-handling tools, a varied set of goods, applications and services that are used to produce, store, process, distribute and exchange information.

In Zimbabwe, one of the largest challenges traditionally experienced by farmers has been a lack of transparent and adequate information to cope with changing weather patterns and soil conditions as well as epidemics of pests and crop diseases.

Agriculture has the capacity to contribute about 15-18 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Given the challenges bedeviling the country’s largest economic sector, effective implementation of ICTs in agriculture can turnaround the sector’s fortunes.

The implementation will undoubtedly equip farmers with proper farming knowledge and advisory services through SMS, voice, web portals and call centres.

ICTs can have a substantial impact in agricultural production since farmers can obtain information on which seed varieties are best suited for their local conditions and it is also one of the most effective and recommended ways by FAO to bring vast improvements in the agricultural sector in developing countries like Zimbabwe.

Through mobile phones which are some of the key drivers of ICTs, farmers can get customised mobile alerts on various aspects which range from sowing seeds to marketing their agricultural produce.

For example in Kenya where agriculture is contributing about 24 percent of the country’s GDP farmers are reaping the benefits of using ICTs in the sector. In Kenya farmers are benefiting from an online tool that allows them to quickly obtain information on which seed varieties are best suited for local conditions.

In Zimbabwe ICT-enabled services can also help in disseminating timeously information on agricultural advisories, financial services and agricultural marketing and risk transfer to the farmers to improve their capacity and mitigate risks.

Since there is a widespread consensus among farmers that efforts to deliver agricultural information via traditional extensions is affecting productivity, the use of mobile phones can potentially offer the opportunity to deliver personalised agricultural information to farmers at low cost.

For example in the first intervention, farmers can receive a set of text messages that inform them about agricultural tasks to be performed right around the time they need to complete such tasks on the plot.

In the second intervention, farmers can access a hotline service, which also includes routine calls from company operators, where they can file reports about delays or other issues concerning company input delivery and payments.

There is no doubt that investment in “ICTs-enabled farming” would create a new agricultural development paradigm that can transform the performance of agricultural sector and improve rural livelihoods in the country.

In Zimbabwe this is possible because of deeper rural penetration of mobile network.

The Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services, Engineer Sam Kundishora, said the ministry was working with private stakeholders and software developers to sensitise farmers on the values of using ICTs in the agricultural sector.

“What we’re doing as a ministry is that we’re demonstrating how ICTs interventions in the agriculture sector can help farmers improve food production. We’re working with private stakeholders and software developers to establish innovation platforms to sensitise farmers on the values of using ICTs in the agricultural sector.

“What I can also say is that solutions and models are there but what’s lacking is a coordinated approach with farmers for them to embrace ICTs so as to improve agricultural yields. What we want is to have a platform with farmers where we can talk to them and sensitise them on how they can take advantage of ICTs in order to improve food production in the country,” said Eng Kundishora.

Eng Kundishora was clear that ICTs innovation can empower farmers by facilitating timely access to localised and personalised information for greater control of their production, risks and thus market their produce to identified market opportunities.

The excitement generated by the introduction of ICTs in other sectors such as education, health, financial services and trade is evidence enough that ICTs can be the solution to agricultural development in the country.

Allen Ncube, a farmer from Umguza area in Matabeleland North Province, said the unavailability of extension staff in their locality for consultation or advice was a drawback.

He believes only the implementation of ICTs can afford farmers easy access to information and tips on how to increase agricultural productivity.

“As farmers we aren’t getting timely crop and weather advisories, and the information about schemes and government programmes is hardly accessible to us. We believe the introduction of ICTs in the agricultural sector will help us avert potential losses by reacting quickly to weather and pest information being sent to us by the meteorological department.

“For example it might rain today, but not enough to allow us commencing sowing. With warning from the Meteorological Department and Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development we can make informed decisions on whether we should sow or wait”.

Ncube’s prayer is that farmers should be empowered with information and communication assets and services that can help them increase productivity and incomes as well as protect their food security.

Zimbabwe Farmers Union executive director, Paul Zacharia, said his organisation was also working on a number of ICT-enhanced programmes to address challenges in agriculture, including how to address the abundant information needs of farmers and make agriculture profitable for them.

“We’ve a number of programmes hinged on ICT to promote market information through interactive platforms. On these platforms farmers can identify their markets and would be updated with information to empower themselves in taking research to land, avail timely and adequate credit, seek and act on market intelligence reports and access market and negotiate prices.

“Instead of going to the bank they can also receive their payments on those very platforms. We’re doing all this as a measure to promote the use of ICTs in the agricultural sector. We’re also working with young farmers where we’re designing applications where these farmers can get information on weather patterns and how the market is reacting among other benefits,” he said.

It is vital to bear in mind that in designing ICTs-in-agriculture “interventions and access” refers not only to the physical proximity and accessibility of ICT infrastructure, tools, and services, but also to their affordability, use, and usage models that are appropriate for the local physical, environmental and cultural constraints.

More importantly, farmers should recognise that these new 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.

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