ICT for Agriculture: A lesson for Ethiopian Research and Extension System

Application of Information and communication technology for agricultural Knowledge management can play a pivotal role in enhancing agricultural productivity and addressing the problem of food insecurity. If properly managed, it enables appropriate knowledge and information to reach knowledge intermediaries and smallholder farmers in a timely manner. Such delivery of knowledge and information undoubtedly minimizes the risk and uncertainty smallholder farmers face from production to marketing of their produce. But, to effectively engage in agricultural knowledge management, adequate mechanisms are needed for generating, capturing, and disseminating knowledge and information through the use of effective processes and institutional arrangements.

Information and communication technology (ICT) can play a critical role in facilitating rapid, efficient, and cost effective knowledge management. However, ICT application in Ethiopia remains low in comparison with several African countries. For instance, in a number of Sub-Saharan African countries, smallholder farmers get technology-related advice as well as location-specific market information on inputs and outputs through ICT kiosks. Furthermore, mobile telephone service is being successfully used to deliver agricultural information to users.

In Ethiopia, public agricultural extension services have been in action for about half a century. Studies show that Ethiopia has the largest agricultural extension system in Sub-Saharan Africa, and third largest in the world after China and India (Swanson and Rajalahti, 2010). According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF 2010), a total of 8,500 farmer training centers (FTCs) have been established and 63,000 field extension workers (known as development agents-DAs) have been trained. The current extension approach, therefore, follows FTC-based extension system.

To speed up technology adoption, the government of Ethiopia should harnessing its public extension service delivery system and particularly the agricultural extension system and provide an enabling framework for utilizing advances in information and communication technology to deliver agricultural extension services. Using available ICTs will not only improve information and knowledge management for extension workers and farmers but optimize and rationalize public resources devoted to agricultural extension services.

The FTCs are positioned to facilitate agricultural knowledge and information exchange among researchers’ extension workers and farmers. Woreda level agricultural offices are responsible for managing the operation of FTCs with the support of zonal and regional agriculture bureaus and are the frontline administrative structure for implementing agricultural extension services in the country. So far the main method for linking different actors including: agricultural researchers, development agents and farmers working at different level merely depend on traditional communication channels.

 ICT can play a crucial role in benefiting the resource-strapped farmers with up to date knowledge and information on agricultural technologies, best practices, markets, price trends, and weather conditions.

Experts in public and private research and extension system could easily connect, collaborate and established working online and offline platform using the ICT tools. The experiences of most countries indicate that rapid development of ICT, which facilitates the flow of data and information, has tremendously enhanced the knowledge management practice in agriculture.

However, currently, among the various ICT related initiatives, radio is widely used to share and inform users on agricultural issues, including new and upgraded farming techniques production management, market information, and other issues. Due to its strategic importance in reaching the majority of the smallholders, only attempts are being made to strengthen the delivery of knowledge and information through this media.

Countries Experiences in using ICT for Agriculture

ICT kiosks: success story in India

eChoupal is an initiative of ITC Limited (a large multi business conglomerate in India) to link directly with rural farmers for procurement of agricultural produce like soybeans, wheat,coffee, and prawns. eChoupal was conceived to tackle the challenges of Indian agriculture, characterized by fragmented farms, weak infrastructure, and the involvement of numerous intermediaries.

The company has already established over 10,000 eChoupal kiosks (centers), across several agricultural regions of the country each with a computer and Internet access where the farmers can directly negotiate the sale of their produce online with ITC Limited. These eChoupal centers also enable farmers to obtain online information and recommendations on good farming practices. In addition, they can place orders for agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilizers. This helps farmers to improve the quality of their produce and realize better prices. Each ITC Limited kiosk is run by a villages, generally within about a 5 km radius. These farmers bear some operating cost but, in return, earn a service fee for each e-transaction done through their eChoupal.

Case Study : M-Farm Ltd in Keyna

There is a small set of new, successful Kenyan start-ups in mobile farming. An example is M-Farm Ltd., a “software solution and agribusiness company” whose product concept is based on the necessity of providing relevant, ready-to-use information to farmers across the nation as a whole. Developed in 2009 and led by Jamila Abass, M-Farm has started its operations with the mission of empowering Kenyan farmers, whose problems include misbehavior of middlemen with respect to the price of produce, ineffective mechanisms for information on market prices, and the relatively high cost of farm inputs.

To alleviate these problems, the company developed an SMS-based technology, through which farmers only need to send an SMS, to access several services in m-farming: they can get information pertaining to the retail price of their output, buy their farm inputs directly from manufacturers at favorable prices, and be matched with optimal buyers for their products. The product was designed to address informational asymmetry and a lack of coordination, which minimize the bargaining power of farmers in their interaction with middlemen. By providing a SMS-based technology for information and communication, M – Farm attempts to provide an easily accessible solution to the problem: the platform also enables farmers to sell collectively, and aggregate their orders when they need to connect with farm input suppliers.

The rates of adoption of the M-Farm platform are remarkable, especially for a new venture focused on the specific segment of the national farming community. As reported by CEO Jamila Abass, M-Farm recruited more than 3000 subscribers (adding to the initial 2000) in the first month after that project was launched. Abass reports that most of the individuals subscribing to M-Farm doubled their profits as a result of the application, and created new, stable market relations with other customers of the same platform.

aimed at reaching these goals: for example, the RapidSMS case cited above is aimed at the improvement of child health and nutrition, and therefore relates directly to MDG no. 4, as well as to no.1 (eradicating global poverty and hunger). The case of WelTel Kenya1, aimed at combating HIV/AIDS as per MDG no.6, constitutes remarkable progress towards the use of mobiles in this field, given its capability of acting on therapy – rather than solely on prevention, as many ICT-based toolkits deployed in the past. The MDGs constitute, therefore, a useful framework to tailor development projects, and to establish specific targets for mobile-based intervention.

 Case Study : M-Krishi – TCS’ Mobile Agro-Advisory Service in India

Conceived in 2006, for agents operating in agricultural markets in India, M-Krishi (“M” stands for “Mobile”, and “Krishi” means “agriculture” in several Indian languages) is a mobile platform developed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), in order to provide personalized advice to farmers on low-end mobiles. This experience mirrors at least two of the traits that we have reviewed in the Sub-Saharan African context: firstly, the necessity of targeting agricultural markets as a specific segment of the economy, and secondly, the choice of providing a custom mobile app based on low-end technologies, due to the low propensity of developing county farmers to purchase high-tech mobiles. What makes the M-Krishi experience unique is that this platform provides personalized advice to farmers. As a result farmers gain access to information on the weather, soil, fertilizer and pesticides that correspond to their plot of land.

The initiative for M-Krishi stemmed from appraisal of farmers’ needs, which clearly addressed the necessity of an integrated system to answer specific queries. The product has been conceived as a mobile agro-advisory system that would allow farmers to send queries to agricultural experts in their local language, and receive information from them in the same language, overcoming the barrier of illiteracy often found with respect to ICT projects in developing nations.

The business impacts reported at M-Krishi are quite impressive: according to TCS, expert advice to farmers using the service has increased yield by 20%, and reduced pesticide costs by almost 40%. Furthermore, TCS reports increased awareness of farmers of new technologies such as Integrated Pest Management, which is likely to result in further yield increases. Further, seeing an opportunity to reduce costs, stakeholders approached the company to start paid pilots in order to reach more farmers.

Case Study : Intuit Fasal in Bangalore

Conceived in 2010, Intuit Fasal is an initiative in Bangalore, southern India, at the laboratories of Intuit, an American software company primarily focused on developing applications for small businesses. Deepa Bachu, the director of emerging market innovation at Intuit, developed the concept of Intuit Fasal (where Fasal means “harvest” in Hindi) in order to maximize the power of technology for optimizing agricultural markets in Karnataka. Fasal is a free SMS-based product that enables farmers to connect with potential buyers and to access real-time price information. Developed on the basis of an ad hoc algorithm, Fasal functions as a “basic supply-and-demand calculator”: once farmers have registered for the service, a profile of their produce and activity is captured, and the service starts sending personalized messages. The system knows when the farmer is ready to harvest, and starts providing several things: price information, advice on techniques and connection with potential local buyers.

What makes Fasal special is its capacity of exploiting the resources and intelligence of a global software innovator, traditionally focused on business segments, to develop agricultural markets in a developing nation. This service has reached more than 500,000 users who earn an average of 20% more income because of the technology. Once again, the traits of innovation revealed above with respect to m-agriculture are portrayed by Fasal, whose complex algorithm does not need complex devices to be operated: simple mobile phones are sufficient for the use of this platform, whose informational activity is performed entirely through the use of voice message and SMS.

ICT4AGR IN ETHIOPIA: The way forward

Effective knowledge and information management in the agricultural sector will be achieved when the right knowledge and information is delivered to the farmers and other stakeholders at the right time in a user-friendly and accessible manner. To realize this, farmers should be involved in the knowledge management process as knowledge generated in a participatory manner has a greater likelihood of being accepted and acted upon by the farmers. This participatory approach will also enable the integration of traditional or tacit knowledge of farmers with the modern forms of knowledge, and further enhance the utilization of knowledge disseminated to smallholder farmers.

Implementing modern approaches to knowledge management in the Ethiopian agriculture sector will not be without challenge. While recognizing that the country has several institutions and organizations engaged in the creation and dissemination of agricultural knowledge and information,

 Effectiveness is inhibited by the coverage and inadequate usage of ICT. Ethiopia is currently far behind several African countries in the coverage and usage of ICT services, and efforts are needed to scale-up investments in physical ICT infrastructure and services across the country. At present, radio stands out as the most utilized medium among the various ICT platforms. In the many countries reviewed however, other modern and innovative ICT-based knowledge management systems have been fully embraced to generate and disseminate agricultural information to stakeholders along the agricultura value chain. Some initiatives aimed at using modern ICT tools such as web portal are underway albei at small-scale. Government should capitalize on the potential role that ICT can play in improving the productivity and output of smallholder farmers and should implement bold measures to harness and turn the potentials into real development benefits.

The major challenges inhibiting the use of ICT in disseminating agricultural knowledge and information which includes the low level of access to ICT infrastructure and services, need to be addressed. The existing potential for extending the current ICT infrastructure to reach rural farmers, coupled by the presence of wide area radio service coverage across the country, should be exploited to implement ICT-based knowledge and information dissemination in the short-term. Policy and investment priorities that government and its partners should consider in order to promote cost-effective knowledge management in agriculture have been highlighted. Priorities include extending the existing ICT infrastructure to reach FTCs and woreda agricultural offices, establishing rural ICT kiosks establishing and strengthening community radios, integrating ICT at all levels of education, and making ICT hardware affordable to the users. Mobile phone platforms offer good opportunity for reaching farmers and knowledge intermediaries, and their use for disseminating knowledge and information should be explored and enhanced and design of interventions should benefit from existing lessons and experiences of many countries in Africa and Asia. These initiatives, we believe, will assist the government to rationalize its expenditures in the sector, streamline the agricultural extension system, speed up agricultural transformation and attain the objective of doubling agricultural production and productivity by the end of the GTP period in 2015.

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