|dc.description||Half the world is waiting for a dial-tone. But not for much longer. If on-going innovations in information and communication technologies (ICTs) can enthuse investors and policy-makers alike, countless millions, including many in ACP agriculture, could soon be proving that old slogan: Information is Power! Putting you through right now...
July 1998: Across the path from the conference on research communication in a West African country, the local hotel's telecentre has a constant stream of visitors, mainly local traders and producers. One had read in Spore of the market in the North for 'natural foods', and was looking for the most profitable outlet. He searched the World Wide Web, and located 'quality' importers in Europe and North America for his free-range chickens. He sent some quick emails, and next morning had three orders, for his entire production. Where there's a Web, there's a way.
The long- predicted 'information revolution' is already happening all around us, and the practical opportunities for the ACP farmer to reap the benefits are growing day by day.
Information and communication technologies ? an unwieldy term used to cover the use of computers and communication between computers ? are fast becoming more accessible, and useful, in ACP States and elsewhere. The cost of acquiring and running a personal computer, plus communicating, is still way beyond the reach of most individuals, but it is becoming an affordable priority even for a relatively small organisation.
With ICTs, the computer user can not only get information on demand from other sources, but also link up with other sources of information and knowledge. Here lies the seed of empowerment, or marginalisation, depending on who has access to the ICTs.
The Web: really World-Wide?
The most common use of ICTs is still electronic mail, allowing messages to be passed between computer users anywhere, usually in a matter of minutes. This has changed the way organisations and individuals in different countries interact: time, distance and expense have taken on new dimensions. A recent evaluation by the International Development Research Centre of its Acacia programme for promoting ICTs emphasised that they change the way people, and their organisations, work together ? a cultural revolution.
Much email is exchanged through the Internet, the general name given to a system that can link up computers. Another use is the World Wide Web, through which a computer user can 'visit' millions of other computers and browse through their information. (A recent survey by CTA of selected partners in West Africa showed that three-quarters use email, and less than one-third use the Web.)
In the last seven years, ICTs and Internet have literally taken the world by storm, blowing away many barriers to the sharing of knowledge, and with them many set ideas in development thinking. No longer a complex, almost furtive way for researchers, NGOs and governments to correspond, ICTs and Infocommunications are recognised as a means for securing economic, cultural and sustainable development goals. Agricultural researchers in ACP countries can keep in step with trends elsewhere. Small and micro-businesses can indeed set out to conquer the world's markets, and discover new products. Waning cultures and languages can get a new breath of life.
Amazing growth in access
Three years ago, only 10 African countries had operational Internet access; now, connectivity is up to 49 of 54 countries and territories. The teledensity, as they call it, shows the relative youth of it all: 700,000 people in Africa have basic Internet access (0.1% of the population), and only half of those have access to the Web. These figures will quadruple by 2001. To correct the obvious urban bias, several countries, including Chad, Malawi, Mauritania, Niger, and Zimbabwe have national coverage, with special access numbers.
Already, ICTs have started to change the face, and pace, of agricultural and rural development strategies in many ACP States. In Dominica, starting in 1995, the Association for Caribbean Transformations provided the Farmers' Union with ICTs so that small farmers could pool their production to enter new export markets. In Eastern Jamaica, in 1992, the Micro-Enterprise Programme used computer communication to move data and market information quickly between its partners. Throughout Africa, agricultural commodity exchanges are establishing themselves (see Kenya's KACE, Spore 77) using local Internet service providers such as Zambia's Zamnet. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is setting up trade points in 120 countries, embracing agricultural chambers of commerce, to promote export opportunities. And CTA uses the Internet as the best way to distribute programmes amongst ACP rural radio stations, and, increasingly, to make Spore available to a broader public.
Just give me a line, not ideas!
There is no shortage, then, of ideas nor initiatives. A recent survey through the UN Economic Commission for Africa showed more than 150 Internet initiatives in Africa, with international donor support, more than half directly serving agriculture or the research community.
There is, simply, a shortage of telephone lines, especially in the area known as 'The Last Mile', the first ? or last ? step for a telephone or email message. With 20% of the world's population, Africa has only 2% of the world's phone network. There are as many telephones in Tokyo or Manhattan as there are in all of sub-Saharan Africa. 35 African countries have less than one telephone per 100 people. The noble goal of the International Telecommunications Union is Universal Access (UA) by the year 2020. In some countries, this means at least one phone per house/office; in Burkina Faso, it is a phone being within two hours' walk.
Mobile phones are replacing or complementing land-based systems in 38 African countries, and most Caribbean and Pacific countries. Until very recently, mobile telephony has been restricted to capital and regional cities, with inter-city links, such as between Kumasi and Accra in Ghana, being provided by satellite.
The general trend is towards 'wireless' communication through combinations of cellular telephones, local loops or phone or radio systems such as Uganda's Uconnect, and by satellite. There are several projects to provide worldwide communications through satellites flying constantly around the world; the first ? Iridium ? started operating at the end of 1998, and others will follow. Their relatively high costs will fall sharply as competition increases.
But how far can competition go, especially in rural areas? The privatisation of telecommunications in many ACP States has led to an explosion of telephone and Internet services, and plummeting prices ? and thus tumbling revenues for the State, already feeling the pinch from less income from inward calls. So, whilst ICTs have become more accessible, the need remains for ensuring that the private sector invest in rural telecommunications, as well as local communities. Whatever else globalisation may mean, it is bringing new opportunities for empowerment in Cyberspace. There is a place for the ACP farmer in there.
For more information:
The Internet and Poverty, Panos Briefing Paper 28. Panos Institute, 9 White Lion Street,
London N1 9PD, United Kingdom.
Fax: + 44 171 273 0345
Telecommunications in Africa:
A comprehensive overview of Internet connectivity:
The Africa Information Society Initiative:
International Telecommunications Union and all UN sites