Fiji lies in the heart of the Pacific Ocean midway between the Equator and the South Pole. The country’s Exclusive Economic Zone contains 330 islands, a third of which are inhabited and covers approximately 1.3 million square kilometers of the South Pacific Ocean. Fiji has a land area of 18,333 square kilometers of which 16 percent is arable agricultural land. The country encounters a maritime tropical climate without great extremes of heat or cold (Fiji Bureau of Statistics, 2008, p.3). Agriculture continues to be the bedrock of the Fijian economy, accounting in 2007 for 14 percent of Fiji’s gross domestic product (GDP) and two-thirds of its near 320,000 strong workforce. Sugar, the most important agricultural product, generated almost 30 percent of agricultural GDP. However, the commercial future of this industry depends on the resolution of the land ownership system due to which cultivation and production continue to decline drastically. Consequently, agricultural focus has now shifted towards diversifying into high-value cash crops for the domestic market, the prosperous tourism industry and also exports (Agriculture Strategic Development Plan 2010 – 2012, 2009, p. 5).
The growing demand for agricultural commodities including higher quality products offers opportunities for improving the livelihoods of the rural communities (Stienen et al, 2007, p. 2). The role of information and communication technologies, ‘ICTs’, to enhance food security is increasingly being recognized and was officially endorsed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 2003- 2005. ‘Information and communication technology’ includes any communication device or application encompassing cellular phones, computer and internet hardware and software, satellite and geographical information systems, as well as various services associated with them, such as video conferencing (Techtarget, 2010). This essay will discuss how ICTs can be used to counter ‘information poverty’ and unwillingness of farmers to commercialize in Fiji.
To begin with, successful farming naturally depends on the availability of resources- amongst many tangible resources; information is the intangible resource (Heeks R and Ducombe R, 2001, p. 1). Without good quality agricultural information, bad decisions are made. This is true everywhere in the world but is a major problem in developing countries including Fiji which is extremely information poor. As a result, farmers are significantly affected. Heeks and Ducombe (2001) also entail that the direct effect of such inconsistency is the waste of money, time and loss of income. Information poverty makes farm entrepreneurs isolated, uncertain and risk prone. If received information is complete, accurate, relevant, timely and appropriately presented, it results in cost reduction and increased income.
Kiplang’at (1999) proposes that dissemination of relevant information to the farming communities can facilitate the effective adoption of agricultural inputs, decision making on markets and adoption of scientific methods. Conversely, the lack of distribution of information across the agricultural supply chain is a major concern for Fiji farmers. ICTs provide the essential link in bridging this information gap. In Fiji, a challenge exists whereby the agriculture sector has failed to take advantage of such technology to deliver resourceful information to needy farmers. This predicament could be addressed should the agriculture ministry and concerned organizations adopt a bottom-up approach for introducing ICT enabled projects in accordance with the needs and cultures of the rural populace as suggested by Dey et al (n.d.).
Firstly, the use of mobile phones is extremely widespread in Fiji. Vodafone, Fiji’s first mobile company has over 90 percent coverage and 700,000 customers (Vodafone Fiji, 2010). Digicel, another mobile network has over 70 percent coverage (Digicel Fiji, 2010). Agricultural information could be spread at a massive scale should software be developed to support the farmers via mobile phones. Ilahiane (2007) stated that mobile phones have revolutionized the way in which farmer’s access, exchange and manipulate information. Mobile technology can be harnessed for great benefits to Fiji farmers. For example, a network of community workers in Uganda uses a suite of mobile applications to give farming advice (Gantt and Cantor, 2010, p. 4). Similarly, a DatAgro project in Chile takes advantage of the high penetration rate of mobile phones to allow rural farming cooperatives to define the types of information most critical to their livelihoods and receive it via text messages (Cagley, 2010, p. 8-9).
Secondly, village ‘telecentres’ can be extremely successful in transmitting information. Rural telecentres can be equipped with computers and internet and use solar power for energy as in Kenya where a computer centre was established for farmers with 4 inveneo solar-powered computers, two 80 watt solar panels and a small modem (Kigoni, 2009, p. 16-17). Useful agricultural information on the web can also be accessed via mobile phones that support internet connection. Vodafone and Digicel Fiji also boast their highly successful ‘flashnet’- ‘usb’ powered internet which can be accessed anywhere mobile coverage is available. Video conferencing with farmers via satellites or over the internet to deliver urgently required information is also an innovative use of ICT. This also enables demonstrations to be made without actually being present in remote areas (Gakuru et al, 2009, p. 14).
Additionally, traditional electronic media, such as radio and television which have greater than 80 percent coverage over Fiji (Communication Fiji Limited, 2010) could be used to broadcast quality programs then existing to really impact the agricultural populace. Communications Fiji Limited and Fiji Broadcasting Company Limited have six multilingual radio stations each while two free-to-air television companies (Fiji Television Limited and Mai Television) also exist. The potential for Fiji farmers to receive relevant information at the appropriate time is immense. However, a model is needed that implements farmer’s feedback, a resource that can be used to further enhance information delivery.
The next challenge confronting agricultural development in Fiji is the fear and unwillingness of farmers to commercialize production, hence causing them to be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Majority of the 86, 680 rural households (54 percent of the Fiji population) are engaged in subsistence agricultural or fishing activities (Agriculture Strategic Development Plan 2010- 2012, 2009, pp. 9). Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sub-regional Representative for the Pacific Islands, Fuavao, V (2010) stated that “a thriving agriculture sector is crucial to address food security and poverty. A healthy sector creates more jobs, income and food for the poor. The challenge is creating a healthy agricultural sector to achieve these objectives and the key is commercialization”. Correspondingly, in the Agriculture Strategic Development Plan for 2010 to 2012, the Fiji government aims to reduce import bill of rice, potatoes, dairy products, sheep and beef to $FJD105 million by 2012 and to attain a greater level of self-sufficiency. In addition to that, another goal is to increase value of exports for non-sugar crops by $FJD100 million by 2012.
First of all, increasing the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of small scale farms is an area where ICT can make a significant contribution. Key improvements stem from information about pests and disease control, early warning systems, quality control, agro-meteorological services, agro-technology transfer and what is being done around the world (McNamara, 2009). Climate change is a major threat to Pacific food security. New techniques to optimize production are being developed which need to be conveyed to the farmers. For instance, after researchers in Burkina Faso identified the best crop varieties for the Sissili region, the Federation of Farmer Organization of Sissili, intensively used digital photos, video camera and video presentations to explain the new growing techniques, hence production increased by nine folds (Lenoir, 2009, p. 4-5). Similarly, the OSCAR (open source simple computer for agriculture rural areas) project in 2006 developed a software program to identify weeds using photographed images. It then provides the weed description, variety and control methods (Lie and Balasubramaniam, 2006, pp. 29). Such technology can be highly utilized in a country like Fiji where expert and skilled personnel are limited.
Secondly, up to date market information can have a dramatic impact on farmer’s negotiating position in the commercial sector (Stienin et al, 2007, p. 3). Simple websites to match offer and demand of agro-produce are a start of a more complex agriculture trade system; something which is absent in domestic agricultural trade. An example is the “EChoupal” program in India which operates a kiosk with internet access in the house of a trained farmer within walking distance of target farmers with objective of creating a direct marketing channel for the area’s farmers (Sharma, 2007, p. 6). Likewise, the Pacific island of Vanuatu became the second country in the world to operate the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS), the Australian tracking system for cattle to trace its organic beef that is compatible with European Union market requirements (James, 2006, p. 7).
Furthermore, ICTs are extremely important for stock and quality control in large scale production. When bar-coded information is scanned into computers, it details the movement of commodities. An illustration of quality control is displayed by the Malian Fruit and Vegetable Export Organization. It uses digital cameras and the internet to gather data from farmers to meet international export standards and then makes the same information available on the web (Senmartin, 2009, 10-11). Moreover, ICTs in commercial agriculture aid in credit access and control, personnel management, finance and communication.
A relatively new technology for Fiji is the ‘global positioning system’ or ‘GPS’ that can be a crucial support to agriculture commercialization as it was used in Ethiopia to map rural roads. This helps non-governmental organizations, extension services and farmers to plan their transportation needs (ICT Update 2010, p.7). GPS positioning is also used to provide guidance in the field and record information. It can be used to set and document jobs as well as record boundaries and features on the farm through mapping. Information can also be exported to office software for traceability and analysis (ICT for Farming, 2010).
In conclusion then, the prevalence of challenges to agriculture in Fiji is being increasingly recognized; hence the employment of ICTs to address these issues is essential. However, this will depend on many factors including community ownership, appropriate content, building on existing practices, access and empowerment, strengthening partnerships and on cost and financial sustainability (O’Farell, n.d.). All in all, ICTs need to be adopted and incorporated into the livelihoods of Fiji farmers to enhance their knowledge and intelligence as well as equip them to farm on a commercial scale for the improvement of their own lives, betterment of their communities and the nation as a whole.
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