ICT in agriculture: Need of the hour

In Nepal, farmers and agricultural producers are yet to benefit from ICT tools through which they can more easily access essential information regarding quality seeds, agriculture finance, irrigation, livestock care and market prices

Agriculture is facing new challenges. With rising food prices that have pushed over 40 million people into poverty since 2010, more effective interventions are essential in agriculture (World Bank 2011). The growing global population, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, has heightened the demand for food and placed pressure on already-fragile resources. Feeding that population will require a 70 per cent increase in food production (FAO 2009).

Over 40 per cent of the labour force in countries with per capita incomes in $400 to $1,800 range works in agriculture (World Bank 2008). Because agriculture accounts for the vast majority of the poor’s livelihood activities, it is also the sector that holds the most promise for pro-poor economic growth.

In fact, agriculture is around four times more effective at raising incomes among the poor than other sectors (World Bank 2008).

In case of Nepal, the agriculture sector contributes around 35 per cent to the gross domestic product of the country. But in recent years, the agriculture sector’s contribution to the GDP has slumped. The recent CBS forecast has put the figure at a little over 20 per cent.  Rural farmers are always the victim of major setbacks such as negative effects of climate change, unavailability of extension and advisory services, lack of access to agriculture finance and rural infrastructure such as roads and irrigation systems and inadequate trade and marketing information systems.

Small-scale farmers often face a knowledge gap with regards to agricultural best practices. Ever since people have grown crops, raised livestock and caught fish, they have sought information from one another. There are numerous questions: What is the most effective planting strategy on steep slopes? Where can I buy improved seeds or feed this year? How can I acquire a land title? Who is paying the highest price at the market? How can I participate in the government’s credit programme?  But farmers rarely get the answers.

In this context, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can play a vital role. The major tools of ICT such as computers, internet, geographical information systems, mobile phones as well as traditional media platforms such as radio or television stimulate participation and enhance agricultural value chains. In Nepal, reliable ICT infrastructure is concentrated in urban centres. The country has seen good progress in the telecom sector, but rural farmers are yet to get the benefit when it comes to its application in the agriculture sector. And there is lack of ICT awareness and literacy and its applications.

Despite efforts over the years to disseminate and transfer agriculture knowledge to the stakeholders, expertise and knowledge are still out of the reach of most of the rural farmers.

Agriculture knowledge may be contained in the corporate database, or it may reside undocumented inside the brain of the researchers or even stored in locations unknown to the majority of the people.

Large sections of the farming community do not have access to the huge knowledge base acquired by agricultural universities, extension centres and research stations. In this respect, the main challenge is to find this knowledge and apply it to the decision-making process.

The main issue for organisations now is to recognise, locate and utilise this specialised knowledge, currently embedded in organisational databases, processes and routines, as a distinct factor of production so as to increase productivity and competitiveness. Gender disparities in levels of ICT adoption are an additional social and economic concern.

Evidences show that women in rural areas are much less likely to have access to mobile phones or computers than men. In general, this disparity occurs because women do not have income (often controlled by men in the households) to buy mobile phones or gain education to use them effectively. Contributing to the challenge are social norms in rural communities.

One study found that men put restrictions on how women use mobile phones, further decreasing women’s freedom to use phones economically. Most women see phones as security measures -- not as a way to access public services or improve livelihoods (e-Agriculture 2010). This gender disparity in ICT access decreases when women and men have similar educational backgrounds and incomes. Projects focused on increasing women’s primary education and basic computer skills thus can increase their effective use of ICT (Gillwald, Milek, and Stork 2010).

In recent days, some apps such as “ICT for Agriculture’, Krishi Guru” and “Smart Krishi” have been developed for literate youths, farmers and entrepreneurs to provide reliable information on the agriculture sector for promoting agribusiness and attracting the youth in agriculture.

Updated information allows farmers to cope with and even benefit from these changes. New approaches and practices as well as renewed commitments to implementing policies are required to boost production and guarantee sustained income levels. The livelihoods of the world’s poor rise and fall with the fate of agriculture. Enhancing the ability of smallholders to connect with knowledge, networks and institutions necessary to improve their productivity, food security and employment opportunities is a fundamental development challenge.