The proper question is…
what exactly are ICTs? And can they really be useful and cost-effective for poor farmers with restricted access to capital, electricity, and infrastructure?
First, an ICT is any device, tool, or application that permits the exchange or collection of data through interaction or transmission. ICT is an umbrella term that includes anything ranging from radio to satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers.
Second, these ICTs and others have gained traction even in impoverished regions. The increases in their affordability, accessibility, and adaptability have resulted in their use even within rural homesteads relying on agriculture.
New, small devices (such as multifunctional mobile phones and nanotechnology for food safety), infrastructure (such as mobile telecommunications networks and cloud computing facilities), and especially applications (for example, that transfer money or track an item moving through a global supply chain) have proliferated.
Many of the questions asked by farmers (including questions on how to increase yields, access markets, and adapt to weather conditions) can now be answered faster, with greater ease, and increased accuracy. Many of the questions can also be answered with a dialogue—where farmers, experts, and government can select best solutions based on a diverse set of expertise and experience.
The types of ICT-enabled services
that are useful to improving the capacity and livelihoods of poor smallholders are growing quickly. One of the best examples of these services is the use of mobile phones as a platform for exchanging information through short messaging services (SMS).
Reuters Market Light, for example, services over 200,000 smallholder subscribers in 10 different states in India for a cost of US$ 1.50 per month. The farmers receive four to five messages per day on prices, commodities, and advisory services from a database with information on 150 crops and more than 1,000 markets.
Preliminary evidence suggests that collectively, the service may have generated US$ 2–3 billion in income for farmers (Mehra 2010), while over 50 percent of them have reduced their spending on agriculture inputs.
ICT-enabled services often use multiple technologies to provide information. This model is being used to provide rural farmers localized (non-urban) forecasts so that they can prepare for weather-related events.
In resource constrained environments especially, providers use satellites or remote sensors (to gather temperature data), Internet (to store large amounts of data), and mobile phones (to disseminate temperature information to remote farmers cheaply)—to prevent crop losses and mitigate effects from natural adversities.
Other, more-specialized applications, such as software used for supply chain or financial management are also becoming more relevant in smallholder farming. Simple accounting software has allowed cooperatives to manage production, aggregation, and sales with increased accuracy.
The Malian Coprokazan, involved in shea butter production, began using solar-powered computers with keyboards adapted to the local language to file members’ records electronically. Along with electronic administration, the coop plans to invest in Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to obtain certifications and use cameras and video as training materials to raise the quality of production.
From 2006 to 2010 alone, the coop’s membership grew from 400 to 1,000 producers (http://www.coprokazan.org/).
These examples represent only a minute subset of the information and communication services that can be provided to the agricultural sector through increasingly affordable and accessible ICTs.