Although ICTs have been in many African countries for more than decade, for many people including farmers, the benefits are still on the social communication side than strategic knowledge generation. At least 60% of ICTs usage is still mainly for social purposes such as relaying messages around emergencies such as funerals, notices about weddings, birthday parties, weather information, outbreak of crop and livestock diseases, etc. In some cases ICTs have challenged traditional customs where some elders still insist on someone bringing a word about a funeral rather than calling on their mobile phones. In most African communities, respect and dignity is still associated with physical delivery of an important message such as the death of a special person in the clan. If you send a message or the message is delivered by a third party, the elders may pretend they have not heard about it.
African countries have not done much in integrating ICTs in agribusiness models
While urban areas are awash with ICTs-related services such as access to internet, smart phones and WIFI hot spots, rural areas still lack these – presenting challenges in linking rural areas with urban markets. Both the supply-side and demand-side of agricultural knowledge are still to be strengthened using ICT solutions. Where infrastructure is available there is a glaring absence of appropriate content. For instance, there are limited mechanisms for rural youths to use smart phones and internet connectivity in sharing knowledge. While community newspapers and community radio stations tend to have local content, the same cannot be said about internet cafes and rural information centres.
Where knowledge is shared, there is need for a relationship between Communities of Practice (CoPs) such as farmers, financial institutions, rural artisans, traditional leaders, processors, buyers, schools, universities and consumers. A key question is: who organizes these groups to share knowledge? Mobile service providers focus mainly on providing communication services but are not able to link up business nodes with CoPs. Without knowledge brokers, ICTs will continue to be associated with gadgets such as smart phones, ipads and laptops. Unless farmers, traders and other actors see the content value of ICTs they will not be enticed to buy smart phones, ipads and other gadgets.
ICTs are useful where organized CoPs exist – organized farmers, organized markets, organized transporters and business clusters as well as knowledge centres. Unless we organize agricultural and knowledge markets, ICTs will remain a supplement rather than become part of mainstream knowledge sharing pathways in Africa where an oral culture is still the default. African geeks have failed to tailor-make ICTs to meet the needs of farmers, traders, transporters and other value chain actors. May be its too early to judge. By now we should be building content and tailor-making local specific agricultural dictionaries for each context and linking it to global knowledge systems.
Local people continue downloading general information that is floating on the internet. As if to confirm that technology is an extension of a particular culture, most ICT gadgets come with foreign games and business plans from where these gadgets have been conceived and developed. You can’t get a local specific business plan for a farmer in Mazowe, Nyeri, Umguza or Makhatini Flats developed with insights like soils, climate and production practices suitable for these areas. We need a team of content developers whose role is tailor-making solutions for African contexts. Ministries of ICTs and local universities should be developing and experimenting with content for the local ICTs industry rather than churning out ICT graduates who cannot address basic needs of farmers. This is happening at a time African economies are desperate to replace intellectuals with entrepreneurs.
We can’t be caught in a culture of forwarding information through Whatsapp rather than creating content. When you create content you are forced to embrace demand-driven requirements. Developed countries did not achieve their development status by putting ICTs on the forefront. Rather it was due to critical thinking and use of brain power (cognition) to develop content. Yet developing countries are being sold the myth that development will come through addressing the digital divide when the cognitive divide is the biggest threat. It doesn’t help to be digitally-connected when you don’t have appropriate content or game-changing knowledge to share. Localization of ICTs through content development and improving the cognitive diversity will carry the day.
The hype around mobile money
Contrary to the hype, mobile money is currently not contextualized within the agriculture sector towards a win-win scenario. In Zimbabwe, traders have since discovered that, depending on amount of money and distance between production zones and the market, it is very expensive to send money to a farmer through mobile money such as eco-cash. For instance, it costs only a dollar for farmers in Masomera to bring their commodities to Marondera market. If a trader was to send $500 to a farmer in Masomera through eco-cash, he would be charged $4 while the farmer will be charged $5 to get the cash from an eco-cash agent. This will bring the total cost of the transaction to $9 – close to 2% of the total money sent. In this case it is way cheaper for a farmer to get onto a Kombi and come to collect the money from the trader in the market than resort to eco-cash.
The above scenario shows that mobile money has not been designed taking into account distance, type of commodity and the motivations of farmers to travel to the market where they see, touch, smell and hear more from fellow farmers and other actors. A mobile money facility for the agriculture sector may not be a bad idea for agro-based African economies. This has to be less costly enough and take into account the nature of different commodities in the market. The facility can be sectorised and tailor made for different commodities because the market has fast moving and slow moving commodities. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all mobile money facility.
How a knowledge exchange platform comes in
During the era where everyone wants to benefit and it’s difficult to achieve equitable benefit sharing, there is need for a knowledge exchange platform facilitated by an honest knowledge broker. A trader often wants to know what the farmer has for the market before divulging information and reaching an agreement with the farmers first. In this situation, trust and relationship building should precede the introduction of ICTs. You can’t start and end an agribusiness transaction with ICTs alone without human interference. It is important to build interest. Development organisations and governments should introduce ICTs as a shared asset through knowledge centres. From these centres, farmers can share information with the market, extension services, consumers and the outside world. This will drive farmers’ interest to buy their own smart phones. The initiative will also entice youth into agriculture as they realize that they can actually access the market while in one place. Market-related costs will be reduced drastically resulting in increased production. Farmers will quickly get information from the knowledge centre and make quick decisions. Some of the information to be gathered and shared through a market knowledge centre includes the following examples from Mbare agriculture market in Harare:
At the moment, Zimbabwean farmers waste more than 70% of their time in the marketing process. The situation could be worse in other countries. Farmers are often seen hanging around tobacco auction floors and other markets where they try to push their commodities aggressively. ICTs are yet to address most of these challenges due to failure by farmers to understand the principles of marketing, among other issues. By providing more information beyond mobile calling and short message services, mobile applications may enable farmers and traders to track, manage and improve their agribusinesses activities – creating a compelling user experience. If this does not happen soon enough, ICTs will continue strengthening the already powerful urban dwellers and traders.
The market as the difference between subsistence and commercial
African agriculture cannot improve or function without information about what is working and what is not working. The information can come from many sources such as farmers, traders, input providers, consumers and even whistle-blowers. Agriculture cannot reform current flawed production and marketing processes if extension officers, NGOs and farmers do not communicate their failures and successes. It does not help to continue covering up data or evidence that reveal weaknesses in existing practices. Farmers and other value chain actors need to seek out new connections in order to get new insights. They need access to evidence that shows where they are going wrong.
Markets are not free to share information. That is why it is often difficult for financial institutions to extract reliable information from traders without articulating benefits or going via a knowledge broker. The knowledge broker’s roles include brokering relationships between one market and the other and between a particular market and financial institutions. While millions of African smallholder farmers are ready to become commercial producers, the market is the difference between subsistence and commercial agriculture. On the other hand, you can’t talk market without mentioning information. Most smallholder farmers produce proficiently but expert the buyer to set the price. They also need skills in manipulating funding sources and processes.
Access to knowledge and information will continue making a difference between rich and poor in developing countries. Timely access to information drives accurate decision making. It is also about understanding the long term not just instant information. Farmers have to know that a decision to move from cotton to maize production has far reaching impacts because it affects institutions, systems and structures that had been put in place to support cotton production. Although many people, particularly Zimbabweans may deny it, the tobacco market has begun its slow but painful death. With the remaining heavy smokers being the Chinese and East Europeans, it is important to rethink all the investment going into tobacco at the expense of natural resources.
While social media is the biggest breakthrough more than computers, African smallholder agriculture is failing to take off due to lack of evidence or data. Traditionally smallholder farmers have not cared about understanding the market because they have relied too much on parastatals like the Grain Marketing Boards and Cold Storage Commission. That is why they still speak in terms of tons per hectare. The collapse of these institutions has exposed farmers who must now rely on new institutions. To compound farmers’ challenges, marketing processes have become a game played by middlemen who have filled the vacuum left by the demise of formal institutions.
Major questions in this mix are: What is the capacity of farmers associations to process market information? How can farmers respond to markets when they rely on inputs handed to them by government and donors? Inputs have to converge with outputs. The output market should justify investment in the inputs market. Where agricultural institutions exist, what tools are they using? How is social media being used to leverage agriculture knowledge? Understanding market dynamics could be a sensible starting point in answering these questions!
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