Zambia is endowed with vast land of about 75 million hectares, of which 40-50 percent is suitable for the production of livestock and a range of both traditional and non-traditional crops. Although the potential for expanding agriculture into the relatively fertile lands is high, only about 20 percent of the country’s estimated 60 million hectares of arable land is cultivated.
The area under cultivation for different crops has varied little in the last decade, and is dominated by maize cultivation, which is the principle cash crop as well as the staple food, and its production accounts for about 54.3 percent of the proportion of cultivated area devoted to crops; and until 1992 the majority of maize production was supported by government credit facilities and subsidies.
In response to global and regional economic changes, the Zambian government opted for a policy of total liberalization of its economy in fiscal year 1992. This meant that the government would no longer set agricultural prices and would withdraw completely from agricultural marketing and giving credit facilities to agricultural production. Prior to the liberalization, the government provided a ready market for farmers, as such, farmers did not need to be concerned about knowing how to market their produce and source their inputs.
Following the structural changes in 1992, a new direction was dictated for the Zambian farmer. Although liberalization opened up regional and global markets, traditional markets were no longer available to the local farmer and this required a major transition for the farmers. Among other factors, timely and accurate information on marketing and alternative agricultural enterprises became a priority. Consequently, up- to- date information on agricultural production and market data have become increasingly important as tools for farm management and agribusiness marketing. Today, globalization means that Zambian farmers must compete with farmers the world over for a share of the market.
Despite the many opportunities that globalization offers through opening up of regional and international markets, many Zambian farmers lack skills in knowledge or market access to take advantage of these new business opportunities. Consequently, global trade and investment are increasingly becoming dependent on a timely flow of data. Lack of timely information is well known to be the largest constraint on small-scale agricultural production in Africa- a sector that provides livelihood for 70-80 percent of Africa’s population.
Public extension service has been the main source of information over the years, along with traditional mass media such as radio, television and publications. However, farmers in rural areas are constrained in information access due to the decline of the extension services resulting from challenges relating to human and financial resources that have limited capacity to effectively and efficiently provide information to small-scale farmers.
In a survey of information needs of small-scale farmers conducted in two of the nine provinces of Zambia, Kalusopa T. in The Challenges of Utilizing Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) for the Small-scale Farmers in Zambia found out that constraints to information access, among others included, weak human capital and technical infrastructures, lack of clear national information policy and lack of coordinated agricultural support system for small-scale farmers. Therefore, there is need for initiatives that promote modern ICTs like the Internet to supplement the work of the public extension service, and the traditional mass media.
Responding to these new challenges faced by the Zambian farmers, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Department of Agriculture/Foreign Agriculture Service (USDA/FAS) designed a pilot project—the “Zambia Rural Youth Initiative”—in partnership with the Zambia National Farmers Union. The purpose of the project was to create and encourage agribusiness entrepreneurship by teaching young Zambian agriculturalists in four districts on how to effectively use information technology in making production and marketing decision.
The project’s specific objectives were: training staff and members of the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) to use Internet and E-mail for agribusiness marketing; training a group of Zambia National Farmers Union member entrepreneurs how to train others on Internet and E-mail use to improve agricultural production and Marketing; and training staff members on managing and operating a self-sustaining agribusiness information center.
A unique focus was put on the youth as partners in all stages of the project based on the underlying assumption that development without involving young people is not sustainable. Youth as stakeholders were incorporated throughout the stages of the project as partners in creating and encouraging agribusiness entrepreneurship using the Internet as a decision making tool. This is from the fact that more than 60 percent of the Zambian population is composed of young people under the age of 30 years. Youth have the energy to get all the things done and are agents of change to the development of their communities and the nation.
The Benefits of the Internet In agriculture
The Internet offers many useful opportunities to developing countries for breaking the cycle of poverty. The Internet and other modern ICTs facilitate knowledge gain that gives the poor power to change things around them according to Caspary G. in Information Technologies to Serve the Poor: How Rural Areas Can Benefit from the Communications Revolutions. A lot of the rural poor from the developing world have been getting out-dated information, which is less beneficial to them. The advent of the Internet and other ICTs now enable people to process, store, retrieve and communicate information in whatever form it may take, unconstrained by distance, time and volume; and this does empower people and nurtures development.
In the agricultural sector, the internet serves as an inexpensive form of interaction among remote participants, increases chances of networking and importing the technological know-how from overseas. It also enables rapid access to weather forecast and pricing information. Farmers can also improve timing of their transactions and will be able to save time by quick identification of buyers and sellers. By use of the Internet, farmers can access inputs directly from manufacturers thereby reducing transaction costs.
The Internet also offers farmers access to information in a timely manner enabling them to learn about the new technologies in a faster way, thereby increasing the adoption rate of innovation. Better access to information helps extension workers and researchers to adopt improved agricultural practices and disseminate information to the farmers. The Internet also offers the opportunities for scientists in developing countries to access databases, scientific documentations and publications in an inexpensive and timely manner thereby narrowing the gap between them and the developed world.
One other potential benefit of the Internet in developing countries in improving food security is through access to timely information for determining optimal harvesting times, locating sources of surplus, distribution channels and storage facilities; provision of equitable access to new techniques for improving agricultural production; and improving communication and information flow for better research and extension service linkages.
Kenny C. in Information and Communication Technologies and Poverty links low rural income in Africa to “information poverty” or lack of access to information and knowledge that could improve earning potential. He cites an example from the study of rural business in Botswana and Zimbabwe done by Kayani and Dymond (1997) which showed that access to a telephone was a critical determinant to the success or failure of a business. Similar results were also shown from a study on the analysis of households for local telephone calls in rural areas of Bangladesh and Peru. A comparison of households that were similar in all characteristics with the exception of access to phones showed that telephone access to phones led to an increase of 22 percent in per capita total consumption and 24 percent in per capita cash-based consumption. Another study on the relationship between intense ICT use and export performance in an Indian case study shows that the use of ICTs in design and marketing activities increased the competitiveness of the Indian garment industry at international level (IFPRI, 2005). These are just but a few examples on how the Internet has been of benefit to society.
By Precious Hamukwala
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of Zambia
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