She takes out her mobile phone, sends an instruction via Short Message Services (SMS) and in a short moment, a big grin appears on her face as she has just received a confirmation of an order to supply a tonne of potatoes each week for the next twelve weeks, thanks to a service introduced by a local software company in partnership with mobile phone service providers to help match farmers’ offers with buyers’ needs.
Elsewhere in the communal lands, which are some of the least developed areas in Zimbabwe, an young boy aged 16 who is a communal farmer walks into a telecentre (recently commissioned by an international donor) with an ox-drawn cart full of good quality vegetables. He presents his case to the manager of the centre who then takes his details, sits on her desk where there is a computer connected to a server located in the city using Broadband over Power Line (BPL) last-mile technology suitable for smaller communities which do not use high volume data. After searching through the database, he finds and sends an email to a potential buyer notifying him about the available vegetables. The buyer, who is located at the nearest town, receives the order and he sends a confirmation as to the time he will come to collect the produce.
The above two scenarios reflect just how ICTs could be used in the short to mid term in improving access to markets for agriculture in Zimbabwe. However, to avoid total and partial failure in the use of ICTs to achieve this noble objective, whereby the intended beneficiaries end up not using the technologies at all and resources being wasted, the solutions must be guided by three key elements that are intertwined and fundamentally inseparable: types of farmers, possible markets, and the kind of technology that can be placed in between. In Zimbabwe, there are predominantly three types of farmers: a) the newly resettled farmers, whose literacy levels are average especially in terms of developments in technology, b) the communal farmers, mostly very young people and the elderly who survive on agriculture only, and whose literacy levels are very low, and c) the commercial farmers, comprising a mostly youths and middle aged persons, whose literacy levels are high and treat farming as serious business. Thus ICT solutions presented herein take into consideration these differences. As for the markets, there are middle men, public market places, home consumers, agri-processing companies and the export market too. Likewise, ICT solutions for better access to agricultural markets take this into cognisance. Finally, the current and potential ICT infrastructure landscape of Zimbabwe needs to be taken into account since any ICT solution will largely depend on these.
Overall, Zimbabwe has now managed to bridge the digital divide between the rich and poor by the provision of very affordable mobile phone services, coupled with serious network expansion such that almost every area now has network coverage of at least one of the three service providers. Currently Zimbabwe has an ICT penetration rate of 40 % and is experiencing unprecedented growth of 10 mobile phones per 100 people and the majority of these are young people. Thus an effective solution will be that which makes use of mobile phone applications as they are widespread in Zimbabwe. Software can be locally developed that can match a farmer’s offer and a buyer’s needs taking into account details such as, though not limited to price, quantity, quality, and location. The application can be used in notifying farmers on the latest market prices prevailing at the major market places around the country so that they may plan better on the selling patterns. This solution is suitable for all the types of farmers of any age in Zimbabwe and it is very cost effective.
Applications/Information Systems that can be online or offline can be built with the aid of experts from the Agricultural Research Extension (AREX). These applications will be more or less like Expert Systems that can even train farmers on how to produce any crop, but most importantly, they may be used to communicate market advice to the more literate commercial farmers and even the new farmers (though to a limited extent due to literacy levels) via the internet. One may think that perhaps the cost of buying the computers may be high for the young new farmer or communal farmer, but wait until they hear that the Indian Institute of Technology has developed the world’s cheapest “laptop” that will be on sale in 2011, fetching a price of USD35 which is expected to come down to USD20. In Zimbabwe, customs duty was scrapped off on all ICT goods and thus this solution becomes very much affordable to the majority of these farmers.
Whilst the farmer needs to be updated on latest market conditions, the buyers (the market) need also to know of what is available. Therefore, the farmers, with the aid of AREX or organisations such as Zimtrade (which facilitates smooth trade in Zimbabwe) can use the mobile applications or an application/information system to register and upload information about the farmers’ produce and expected yields. This information can be relayed, via internet or SMS, to screens which would be located at the public market places, or directly to mail boxes of agents/middle men, agri-processing companies and even importers of Zimbabwean produce. The two-way process will edify the market forces mechanism such that both farmers and customers get the best deals.
The challenge in making these solutions feasible lies on the availability of infrastructure that supports internet and/or affordable internet services. This can be overcome if broadband over power line (BPL) technology is implemented (as was done in South Africa in 2005). BPL relies on the existing infrastructure of electricity power lines and has bandwidth speeds of up to 200Mbps. This will be suitable in areas where there is electricity conveyed by copper power lines. For those areas without power lines, the alternative is to rely on the mobile phone applications.
The establishment of telecentres in rural areas (including remote areas) will prove to be beneficial to the young farmers located there. Telecentres offer services such as fax, internet, typing, printing, scanning, and they are information centres, more like a research library. The centres can have computers connected to online agricultural databases containing details of other farmers and what they produce and also details of buyers located within that particular area or nearby towns, and information such as their prices and order quantities. Local farmers, regardless of literacy levels, may simply walk in and get assistance from telecentre managers to secure buyers for their produce. They may also come to simply notify buyers as to the availability of products. As for the communications infrastructure, BPL, satellite or radio links may be used as these can support simple data transfer with no multimedia.
In conclusion, it is quite apparent that the use of ICTs will leapfrog access to better markets for agricultural produce by all stakeholders in the agricultural sector. However, the implementation must be a carefully phased process, with the full utilisation of currently available, implementable, and feasible technologies, then the establishment of electronic agriculture bodies (which will spearhead research, development and promotion of better uses of ICTs in agriculture), followed by educating the farmers, and the last stage, which would be to evaluate the business side of all these technologies (for sure the business potential is high). This whole process is an overwhelming phenomenon that requires patience and this has led the author to term it ‘breeding of markets.’
Towards an Information Society generation in Africa.
- International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology (IJEDICT), 2005, Vol. 1, Issue I, pp. 101-107
- “Electronic/Mobile Government in Africa: Building Capacity in Knowledge Management Through Partnership”, 2009, http://www.unpan.org/emgkr_africa
- The Business Diary, June 2010 Issue
- Web brainstorm, December 2006/January 2007 Issue, pp. 46 – 47
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- Horticulture Newsletter, January 2010, Issue 2
- Horticulture Newsletter, June 2010, Issue 3
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