Editorial: The message, the medium and the market
The process of market liberalization, the demise of state marketing boards and the lifting of price controls, have created a vacuum for farmers in many developing countries - in terms of information on the pricing of their produce and farm inputs, commodity markets and export channels. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so opportunistic middlemen are rushing in to take advantage of farmers´ lack of information on the ´going rate´ for their produce. At the same time, the deregulation of state-run telecommunications and broadcasting monopolies has meant that a torrent of new technologies is becoming available in the South. As well as ever-cheaper computers, these include mobile phones, radio email, digital satellite broadcasting via the Internet, or wireless loop intranets. These developments have opened the door to a whole new generation of ´multi-modal´ market information services that bring much needed price and product information directly to farmers. This issue of ICT Update describes a number of these innovative initiatives, together with links to their websites and those of others. Some of these websites are maintained by ministries of agriculture, such as Indonesia´s Agribisnis On-line. Many more, however are being developed as private ventures (KACE in Kenya), by farmer/producer associations (Jamaica), or are the result of public-private partnerships (Manobi in Senegal). All of them are taking pioneering steps to adapt or develop new technology to provide farmers with reliable and up-to-date market information when they need it. ICT applications to support market information services in developing countries are still very much in their infancy. There are many obstacles that still need to be overcome, however. These include lamentable telecom and electricity infrastructures, the high levels of illiteracy among farmers, and their lack of purchasing power to acquire the equipment needed to make use of such information services. Many of these new services also lack the capacity - both institutional and human - to collect reliable market data on a regular basis, to process it into information that is relevant to farmers, and to deliver it via an accessible and therefore effective medium. The result is an amazing range of ´mix and match´ services that combine hi-tech ICT applications with conventional low-tech media such as blackboards in community centres, village loudspeakers in the marketplace, local newsletters and FM radio. And, if none of these solutions meet specific local requirements, the initiators of these new services are inventing their own, such as the ´Simputer´ or the ´Infothela´ now being used in India. Many of the agricultural market information services highlighted in this issue of ICT Update are breaking new ground. It is highly likely that many will soon be superseded by other, even more enterprising ventures. As at the beginning of so many other new waves of technological development, few of the innovators will prove to have ´got it right´, and will develop their pioneering initiatives into sustainable commercial enterprises. This is so because the actual uses of ICT applications have always proven to be very unpredictable. Utilitarian views dominate at the time of inception and development of technology applications, but technology forecasters have always been notoriously poor at predicting how and for what particular technologies will actually be used, and their suitability in specific institutional settings. The field of agricultural market information services is certainly no exception. Many providers fail to gather feedback from users to ensure that the information they provide is tailored to what farmers actually need, in terms of the relevance of content, ease of use, appropriate language and format, the accessibility of the chosen medium, and the timing of delivery. And, farmers still need to get used to the idea that information and trading services are inputs, just like fertilizers and herbicides, for which they have to pay. It is encouraging that the media, both local and international, are showing a great deal of interest in the many initiatives highlighted in this issue. These pioneering efforts deserve such exposure, if only because there is so much that others can learn from them. If there is one area in which ICT applications can make a substantial difference to the lives of small farmers in developing countries, it is in the development of agricultural market information services. These are early days yet ?
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Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation
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