The critical challenge in African countries and Zambia in particular is access to information resources and services that add value to the lives of people. Most of the potential of rural African resources and its people still remain untapped. Thus among others, we face several challenges. To contribute to the development of ICTs in southern Africa, Southern Africa Telecentre Network (SATNET ) focuses on supporting innovative activities that would help reduce digital divide, facilitate service delivery to rest of the population. This can only be attained through the use of local based ICT infrastructures; community telecentres. Our expectations are to effectively contribute to the Zambian and Southern African Development Community (SADC) knowledge society as guided by existing Zambian, regional and international policies.
Importance of agriculture and its trends in Zambia and southern Africa
Agriculture plays a critical role to the economies of Southern African countries. The
sector contributes significantly to about 35% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of most SADC member states. In addition, agricultural exports are among major foreign
exchange earner, contributing an average of 13 percent to total export earnings and
constituting about 66 percent of the value of intra-regional trade. Therefore,
Performance of this sector is vital for food security, employment, eradication of hunger,
poverty alleviation, and control of inflation thus promoting economic growth and
For economies such as Zambia, agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of the GDP.
Despite the importance of agriculture in Zambia and the region's economy, this sector has been in constant decline during the last decades. This means positive policy performance in this sector is fundamental to achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Rural farmers are confronted with major setbacks such as negative effects of climate
change, lack of adequate extension and advisory services, lack of access to agriculture finance, rural infrastructure such as roads, and irrigation systems as well as inadequate trade and marketing information systems.
However, guaranteed growth in agriculture means offering opportunities for improved livelihoods to the rural communities. Realizing these opportunities require compliance with more stringent policy framework, strategies and regulations, there is an increasing need for the private and public sector to get more involved with emphasis to innovations.
In the above circumstances, new approaches and practices as well as renewed
commitments to implementing policies are required to resolve some of the challenges to boost farmer production and guarantee sustained income levels.
ICTs and agriculture
It is important to discuss issues of innovation and applications of Information Communication Technologies within the context public policies in the agriculture sector.
On the innovation part, it is important for public and private sector to consider prioritizing ICTs as important tools that could speed up agriculture development in Zambia and beyond. ICTs should not be treated as a luxury to privileged few but treated as critical tools to the people across the country as they bring new ways of doing things and instruments that can reduce farmers transport costs, facilitate commodity trade thereby increasing agriculture production and incomes and contributing to poverty eradicate.
Therefore computers, internet, geographical information systems, mobile phones, as well as traditional media such as radio or TV stimulate participation and enhance agricultural value chains.
Evidence of the contribution of ICT to agricultural development and poverty alleviation is increasingly available. In the past two decades, the United Nations systems and other
international agencies have been involved in projects and policy support programmes to consistently monitor progress on the impact of the use of ICTs in agriculture.
Apart from potential contribution to agriculture, ICTs have also demonstrated its contribution to other sectors.
It is however currently very difficult for the majority of the population particularly those
residing in rural areas to enjoy the benefits of ICTs given its current status in Zambia. The
reasons are that reliable ICT infrastructure is concentrated in the urban area. This includes absence of wireless broadband communications in most parts of the country. The telecommunications infrastructure development is currently inadequate across the country;
there is poor telephone accessibility, and high rates of access costs. The internet communications is not only costly but also not accessible to most of the rural areas. Lack of access to energy is a common problem among many rural locations. You can hardly access power few kilometres away from Lusaka the capital city. Farmers have to resort to alternative sources of energy such as solar to charge their phones. Though mobile communications have coverage to almost all districts in the country, its coverage is limited to a specific Kilometre radius. The other
challenges that have not been recognised by many is lack of ICT awareness, literacy and applications such as the use and what the real value of ICTs are.
Looking at ICT developments in other parts of Africa it is evident that the exclusive use of mobile phones is limited due to the nature of the handsets commonly in use. Many rural people prefer to use the mostly advertised handsets costing as less as 60,000 Zambian kwacha advertised by mobile service providers. The cost of so called-smart phones that have provisions for useful internet services and resources are costly and cannot be afforded by many people.
In the past few years, government has taken steps in positive changes in the legislation and policy instruments to support ICTs development. There have also been projects undertaken supporting ICTs including community telecentres. There is however a need for the government to scale up and accommodate new development interventions from the private sector and civil society organisations in its approach. ICT policy implementation needs to be speeded up to quickly respond to existing challenges in the ICT sector and warrant achievement of universal access goals.
The role of telecentres
It is in this regard that there should be more ICT investments in rural areas. The role of
telecentres should be put as a priority in facilitating agricultural development in rural
Zambia and beyond. Investing in rural telecentres will enable local people and farmers to have access to services and resources. Community based telecentres are better placed to contribute to the resolution of existing challenges, provide access to affordable information and communication, and services provided by the public and private sector. With enough packaging of services, Telecentres could contribute positively to the development of agriculture in the country.
What impact would it give for farmers receiving timely and regular information update on extension and advisory services and on potential agriculture commodity buyers via his/her mobile phone or via internet at a telecentre ? What impact would it give to farmers to receive timely weather forecast on changes in the rainfall patterns within his/her locality. And what benefits will it give to the farmers to regularly discuss and exchange information on good practices via a remote conference with another group of farmers located in another region?
Or the use of a rural located community multimedia centre to discuss agriculture marketing via live calls. These could be more and several other practical realities that could be applied
to contribute to the development of agriculture and improved farmer incomes and livelihoods if investments are scaled up and widely applied.
Telecentres provide facilitating roles to agriculture development such as market information access, issues of climate change, and centres for knowledge and information exchange. As such telecentres should be adopted as main catalyst for agriculture development.
In Rwanda, the government is working with the Rwanda Telecentre Network to investment
in the development of 1000 telecentres country wide to achieve their universal access obligations. In Botswana, a public private sector partnership is in place to up-scale numbers of Kitsong centers (telecentres) in rural areas. And in India, the government is working with the private sector supporting Common Service Centres programme providing E-government services and related agricultural services to a number of Indian states. Through the PPP, thousands of small scale entrepreneurs have access to employment opportunities as they provide reliable services to the India’s rural population.
Despite recognized roles of telecentres, they have faced major challenges such as:
· Development agencies have continued to establish telecentres without taking into
account capacity support and sustainability issues
· Lack of technical and management skills in the management of telecentres
· Erratic supply of internet connections
· Cost of connectivity related to internet communications particularly the cost of
· Lack of ICT equipment in many telecentres
· Lack of localized content to respond to the needs and services of the users
· Inadequate Institutional support
· Lack of energy affects telecentres located in rural areas
· Absence on the use of business models to enable telecentres operate sustainable
It is suggested to the actors in the field of ICTs that the following issues should be seriously taken into consideration:
· Accelerate implementation of the ICT policy by providing enabling environment to key players in the ICT for development sector. This is to suggest that government should facilitate speed policy implementation processes by adopting Stakeholder Engagement Approach (SEA). This will help government, private sector and civil society organisations to identify and effectively implement and monitor key projects in the ICT4D sector. SEA will encourage transparency in the application and implementation of key projects as well as application or deployment of the Universal Access Fund.
· Provide incentives to communications companies having exclusive investments in rural areas by either providing exemptions in taxes and licensing systems
· There is a strong view to propose the existence of community internet
infrastructures where these should be concentrated in major rural agricultural centres
· E-Government programme is a subject of concern where there is a need for government for a regular update for the people to know on its status and its roll out.
· The cost of bandwidth is currently too costly and has a spiral effect on the local
economies including farmers
Government should pass resolution to consider ICTs as a cross cutting issue and
enable internet communication as a human right.
· To contribute to the development of internet communications and reduction of
costs of internet rates, there is a need for the private sector to consider the
importance of domestic Internet traffic exchange. It is important for Internet
exchange points among key players in the internet communications
o Local operators can significantly reduce their international transit costs by
exchanging traffic locally
o The emergence of a local exchange also reduces barriers for emerging firms
in the local market
. The establishment of Internet exchange Points (IXPs) at national and regional levels
· Challenge to the private sector to come up with innovations that will impact
positively to investments in the ICT sector
Inspired by the Southern Africa Telecentre Network and Panos Institute of Southern Africa Media Forum on the Role of ICTs in Agricultural Development , held in Lusaka Zambia , October, 2011