The momentum of change and disruption brought about by ICT’s in supplementing or replacing traditional farming systems was not something that anyone predicted. Drawing on nearly 100 issues of CTA’s ICT Update magazine, this article examines how ICTs have come to represent modern farming and have driven access to agricultural information over the past 20 years.
CTA has covered ICTs for agriculture (ICT4Ag) through Spore and ICT Update magazines, showcasing the role of ICTs in facilitating access to agricultural information and knowledge to farmers in ACP regions. A recent publication, The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report, 2018-2019 highlights that there are nearly 400 digital solutions with 33 million registered farmers across sub-Saharan Africa. However, as agriculture continues to be changed by this digital revolution, it is important to reflect on the journey of ICTs integration within agriculture.
ICT Update has demonstrated how ICTs are positively changing the delivery of extension services in rural communities, improving access to markets, access to finance, and helping farmers adapt to a changing climate through access to weather information, amongst other services.
The power of radio and podcasts
Various issues of ICT Update have featured articles that focus on the benefits of radio programmes for rural communities – particularly African farming communities, who rely on radio programmes for agricultural extension advice. Since early 2002, radio programmes have been highly regarded for providing easily accessible and affordable agriculture-related information, for instance, on livestock feeding practices and mastitis control in Kenyan dairy cattle. Over the years, other extension topics have included weather and climate information services to rural communities in Niger, forest conservation by indigenous communities in the Congo Basin, helping farmers to find new markets through radio adverts, and adapting to climate change in Malawi. Radio can still be considered as a relevant and powerful tool in delivering agricultural extension services in Africa, particularly for farmers with low levels of digital literacy.
Like radio, podcasting bridges the digital skills gap that characterises rural communities by facilitating an easier flow of audio information from extensionists. Podcasting was recognised for its application in agriculture and relevance to ACP countries as early as 2004 by ICT Update. In 2007, for instance, the issue 37 noted the use of podcasting by the Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society, which was keeping its members informed of events’ discussions through podcasting. In the same issue, pastoral farmers from Cajamarca, Peru, were listening to podcasts in local dialects on grape growing, cattle raising and milk production.
Telecentres and phone services
At the start of 2010s, ICT policies and strategies were being put in place by governments in Africa to spread the use of technologies to rural areas. As documented in the issue 66, in 2011, the Ghanaian government’s Community Information Centre’s goal was to develop telecentres in 100 rural districts. At the same time, the Rwandan government sought to establish telecentres in every village, helping business owners to market locally-made products and build commercial partnerships. This evolution of the telecentre movement also provided ICT literacy training to rural communities in Botswana, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, but was eventually surpassed by the growth of mobile phones.
Mobile phone use in Africa has continued to grow since 2000, becoming critical in the sending and receiving of agri-related information, such as weather forecasts, how to access agri-inputs and credit, and updates on commodity prices to enable smallholders to adopt market-oriented farming. Phones have also provided farmers with easy payment solutions and transparency in market prices informations. At present, with increasing smartphones and internet connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa, mobile applications with audio-visual features are expected be the next game-changers in successfully delivering agri-extension services.
Analysing spatial data
In 2003, the use of satellite technologies in rural Africa focused on bridging the digital divide by improving access to internet connectivity. In 2010, the focus of spatial data technologies, such as Geographical Information Services and remote-sensing, had moved on to centre on farm mapping and its application in agricultural practices, such as irrigation and soil quality control. Today, with increasingly unpredictable weather changes, remote sensing and satellite technologies are mostly used for increasing access to weather data and for designing agricultural satellite-based index insurance to help smallholders better cope with the impact of weather shocks.
Driven by consumer demands for the more sustainable use of resources, among other factors, new technologies are finding their place in the fast-moving industry of D4Ag. Current emerging technologies include blockchain, which is being using to build transparency and trust in food chains; Internet of Things applications are simplifying access to agricultural mechanisation; and drones are effectively mapping farms and monitoring crops for pests and diseases. The future of agriculture depends on its digital transformation and the potential of technologies to be scaled out for far-reaching impact.