Agricultural Informatization: Lessons for the developing world

Farmers have their own e-commerce sites where they trade on the Internet and learn about diverse production and business management skills.

Farmers have their own e-commerce sites where they trade on the Internet and learn about diverse production and business management skills.

In 1978, Marc Porat came out with three classifications of society into the Agricultural Age, the Industrial Age and the Information Age. This was done as a way of depicting the various ages of human civilization. The Agricultural Age referred to a period when land, labour, capital and the extraction of raw materials dominated the economy.

The Industrial Age referred to a period when rapid development of industry characterized society. The term “Industrialization” was associated with this era. And the information Age refers to the current period of development driven by information and communications technologies (ICT). Today, we associate the term “informatization” with this age.

Various definitions of informatization has emerged over the years. Simon Nora and Alain Minc coined the term to mean the computerization of society. The meaning of the term was broadened by later users. For example, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, refers to informatization as the extent by which a geographical area, an economy or society is becoming information based.

According to Everett Rogers, informatization is the use of new information and communications technologies to accelerate development as nations become an information society.

And, Texas A & M University professor Randy Kluver uses it to refer to the use of ICT to transform economic and social relations to minimize cultural and economic barriers.

Informatization of agriculture refers to the modernization of agriculture through the use of modern ICT. This appears to be the next logical evolution in agricultural development after the Green Revolution, an era that saw the transformation of agriculture and made it possible for significant increases in agricultural production.

The Green Revolution led to sustained food surpluses and eliminated the threat of starvation, especially in Asia. It raised farmers’ incomes and contributed to the decline in poverty. The Revolution made it possible for people to have access to better nutrition and a more balanced diet.

For those living in rural areas, it created greater employment opportunities. The concept was later to be popularized by Norman Borlaug, a Rockefeller Foundation scientist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Countries such as South Korea, Japan and China have gone a long way to launch an agricultural informatization policy by providing rural farmers access to computers, connectivity, credit, and computerized farm pricing systems.

The needed technological and human infrastructure to promote the informatization of agriculture have been established in the above cited countries. Structures such as Informatization Support Teams, Rural Development Administration, and Agricultural Technology Centres have been established to support the informatization vision.

Informatization education and both hardware and software development have been launched to provide the needed technological infrastructure to support the vision. Personal computers and Internet access have been provided to farmers at very moderate or no cost to drive the policy.

In South Korea, for example, household personal computer penetration rate in 2012 was 60.2% in the rural areas and 89.6% in the urban areas. A 100% broadband Internet penetration was achieved in 2007, and wireless mobile Internet in most parts of the country is available.

The impact of these initiatives has enabled farmers throughout such countries to have access to broadband Internet access, enabling them to bridge the digital divide.

This has improved the quality of life for farmers and has led to a drastic reduction in rural-urban migration. Farmers have their own e-commerce sites where they trade on the Internet and learn about diverse production and business management skills.

Contrast this situation in Africa, a continent where about 70% of its population work in agriculture and the majority of the region’s labour force living in rural villages. Farming is predominantly small holding and there is limited public support for small scale farming. Africa has experienced a net decline in per-person food production during each of the last two decades. Today, most African governments devote under 10% of their annual budget to agricultural development.

Even though Africa appears to be a development priority for the donor community, efforts toward agricultural development are below expectation as the continent has not been able to meet its food supply. The fact is, Africa can never overcome the challenge of poverty and meet the Millennium Development goals without massive transformation in agriculture.

Informatization of agricultural practices will make a difference in the lives of rural and urban poor, make a difference to those who have very little to eat, or are illiterate, or unskilled. Given the numerous challenges confronting the agricultural sector in most African countries, is informatization of agriculture an option for African governments?

Given contemporary trends, it is imperative for Africa to move in this direction if the continent is to overcome its numerous challenges. What will it take to bring about the informatization of agriculture in Africa? How do we begin where do we begin.

Much of the information and knowledge that the farmers of Africa need exist in some form. What is clearly needed is a national commitment on the part of African governments to make agricultural informatization a priority in their development strategy.

First, there is the need for African governments to recognize that the time has come to informatize the agricultural sector.

Secondly, there is the need to create new structures or reorganize existing structures to spearhead the informatization of the agricultural process. Thirdly, there is the need to put in place the technological infrastructure that will facilitate the process.

Information technology has the power to bring about development to rural people. There is the need for an Agricultural informatization scheme to be launched in Africa. It has the potential to raise agricultural productivity and transform agricultural practices.

Indeed, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug reminds us that no nation has been able to bring about economic development and substantially reduce poverty without sharply increasing productivity in the agricultural sector.

It can be said that modernization of agriculture through ICT is key to solving Africa’s problem of poverty and under-development. Africa has already demonstrated its commitment to ICT for development through initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Action Plan and several other continent-wide programmes.

These commitments should be channeled toward agricultural development. Without a massive agricultural informatization process, the development gap between Africa and the rest of the world will continue to expand. It is one of the ways Africa can become a major player on the world stage.
Dr. Osei K. Darkwa

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