ICT tools in participatory research and extension in agriculture

Traditional media and emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) have played a major role in the diffusion of information to rural communities, and have more potential. For example, the use of radio facilitating agricultural marketing and dissemination of market information or the use of mobile phone to link farmers and entrepreneurs.  Currently, many scholars and international agencies argue that ICTs have the potential to increase agricultural productivity through communicating knowledge and information to rural agricultural communities, providing capacity building, accessing markets and credit, restructuring of extension and scaling up inter-linkages of development interventions.  In this post, I want to focus in the use of ICTs in agricultural extension in developing countries, explore their potentialities, in particular for the participation of farmers.

According to Munyua (2000),  “Weak linkages between researchers, frontline workers and farmers have been a major constraint that has resulted in research findings not being applied by poor rural farmers.  ICTs can improve and strengthen these linkages and ensure knowledge and information, which are essential for improving food security are communicated to all stakeholders.”  Therefore, ICTs offer several opportunities bridging different stakeholders involved in extension and breaking the traditional model extensionists to farmers.  Emerging applications of interactive ICTs tools in extension can improve the access to information, knowledge, and a participatory process.
I’ve identified some areas in which the use of ICTs tools play a relevant potential in participatory research and extension:
•    Decision-making process: ICTs tools can be used to gather valuable information for decision-making. For example, the use of cell phones in a village to inform partners about the existence of cassava mosaic disease in a specific location allow to make better decisions in interventions and helping farmers to control actions.  Food security problems facing developing countries demonstrate the need for informed researchers, planners, policy makers, development workers and farmers. Grunig’s The Role of Information in Economic Decision Making (1966) argues, “Communicated information reduces the decision maker’s cost of search for information relevant to his situation. The more information he has available –again, within constraints of the difficulty of the situation and his mental capacity—the better will be his expectations.”
•    Innovation systems: according to Spielman (2006) an innovation system is a “set of interrelated agents, their interactions, and the institutions that condition their behavior with respect to the common objective of generating, diffusing, and utilizing knowledge and/or technology.”    ICTs can help stakeholders share and learn from each others good practices, experiment with tools and methodologies for knowledge sharing, create linkages and networks for future collaboration between the organizations develop ideas to support and enhance knowledge sharing within and across organizations. For example, the existence of communities of practice that are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.  However, there are other factors like the behavior of agents in an innovation system that is conditioned by institutions that open or not diffusion channels.
•    Empowering rural communities: ICTs are not the panacea for participation and empowerment of communities but an interactive approach can help farmers become actors in their own development.   The application of ICT solutions in all the stages of participatory farmer research facilitates the sharing and dissemination of scientific outputs and the listening of farmers.
On the other hand, several challenges and barriers can be identified such as the lack of infrastructure in developing countries, the need of skills associated to the use of new technologies by rural communities and stakeholders, the resistance of stakeholders involved in extension processes of these new tools, and the slow incorporation of these tools in rural communities but in growth.
ICTs should be used as tools but they are not the final purpose of development interventions. Like other tools, successful results depend on many factors thus they are not the solution to extension problems but they can improve the interaction between stakeholders.   Some of the questions that arise at the end of this post are: How to increase farmer access to information and knowledge using these tools?  Does agricultural extension changing because of ICTs?

References:
Grunig, J. (1976). The decline of the global village: How specialization is changing the mass media. New York: General Hall.

Munyua, H. (2000).  Information and Communication Technologies for rural development and food security: Lessons from field experiences in developing countries. Sustainable Development Department (SD), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Retrieved October, 7 from http://www.fao.org/sd/CDdirect/CDre0055b.htm

Spielman, D. 2006. A critique of innovation systems perspectives on agricultural research in developing countries.  Innovation Strategy Today 2(1): 41-54.

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