BACKGROUND: Agriculture plays an important role to the economies of Southern African countries. Agriculture contributes significantly to about 35% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of most SADC member states. In addition, agricultural exports are a major foreign exchange earner, contributing on average 13 percent to total export earnings and constituting about 66 percent of the value of intra- regional trade. Therefore, good performance of this sector is vital for food security, employment, eradicating hunger, alleviating poverty, controlling inflation, promoting economic growth and stabilizing economies. Agriculture-led development is fundamental to cutting hunger and reducing poverty, thereby achieving some of the important millennium development goals (MDGs). For economies such as Zambia, agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of the GDP, while for others, such as South Africa, it contributes less than five percent. Despite the importance of agriculture in the Southern African region's economy, this sector has been in constant decline during the last decades. The agricultural sector is confronted with major challenges related to production and marketing in order to harness its growing and increasingly prosperous population and availability of natural resources. With an estimated annual growth of only 1.5 percent, agriculture is lagging behind demographic growth. However, guaranteed growth in agriculture means offering opportunities for improved livelihoods for the rural communities. Realizing that these opportunities require compliance with more stringent policy framework, strategies and regulations, there is an increasing need for the private and public sector to get more involved with emphasis on policy and innovations. In the above circumstances, new approaches, technical innovations as well as policy implementation commitments are required to cope with these challenges and to enhance the livelihoods of the rural population.
ICTs IN AGRICULTURE: It is clear that ICTs have brought to the fore, new ways of doing things. There is realization that ICTs should be integrated to be effectively used in agriculture development as facilitating tools to boost its impact to the lives of farmers. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have shown evidence for easier access to markets and information resources. The role of ICTs to stimulate agriculture, enhance food security and support rural livelihoods is increasingly recognized and was officially endorsed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 2003-2005. The computers, internet, geographical information systems, mobile phones, as well as traditional media such as radio or TV stimulates participation enhances value to productivity. Evidence of the contribution of ICT to agricultural development and poverty alleviation is becoming increasingly available. In the past two decades, a number of international agencies including CTA and its partners have been involved in projects and policy support programmes and consistently monitor the progress and impact of the use of ICTs in agriculture. Due to opportunities and unique services community telecentres and local multimedia centres do provide to the rural communities in Africa, the role of these local entities should be embraced in order to achieve much talked about universal access and stimulate regional economic development. Telecentres provide facilitating roles to agriculture development such as market information access, issues of climate change, and centres for knowledge and information exchange. They also provide a huge potential for knowledge centres and e- governance services as well as avenues for ICT awareness and literacy for the local communities. As such telecentres should be adopted as main catalyst role for agriculture in urban and rural areas of Southern Africa.
i.Policy implementation challenges
One of the key challenges in many countries in southern Africa is making things happen as regards to ICT policy processes. Past experiences suggest that governments are often slow in ensuring that policies are implemented once they have been launched. According a SADC protocol on Information and Technologies of August, 2001 signed in Blantyre – Malawi, SADC member states undertook to ensure that ICTs do not increase the disparity between men and women, rural and urban. Moreover the challenge of policy implementation is characterized by lack of effective strategies to embrace ICTs as a cross cutting issue. Regulations in some of the member countries favor commercial objectives other than development.
Lack of involvement of stakeholders at a level of ICT policy processes particularly at implementation has often paused challenges in ensuring achievement of policy objectives and goals. Stakeholder involvement such as civil society and private sector makes policy implementation and monitoring more impact. This is an area that needs to be addressed by governments. There is thus need to involve both the private sector and civil society organizations to play a role or part in the implementation of the policy through:
• Consultations and working closely with the Ministry of Communications and Transport and other respective Ministries on the development of implementation plans and strategies for private sector and civil society participation in the policy implementation process;
•Active participation by private and civil society organizations in policy implementation and review process on an on- going basis.” There is high demand for Public –Private sector Partnerships (PPP) to enable both the private sector and civil society organizations to get more involved in implementation of ICT policies. This means that there should be policy framework implementation acceleration; favorable universal access environment where various roles of the civil society should be recognized.
iii.Capacity Building and development
It is evident that service delivery in telecentres is dependent on their capacities to operate effectively. Many rural telecentres lack capacity development. Most of telecentres are established without a capacity development component. Some of the key challenges facing telecentres and respective networks are:
a. Lack of adequate financial and human resources within telecentres
b. Lack of managerial and technical skills for telecentre managers
c. Lack of adequate or poor ICT equipment within telecentres
d. Absence of institutional and extension support services from resource providers Though governments have shown indications of establishment of telecentres, observations have shown that there has been minimal support to develop capacities of telecentres in terms of the above indicated challenges. Further many governments have also shown little or no interest in working with exiting civil society organizations in the area of ICTs to resolve the challenges.
Further lack of adequate funding to telecentres has negated the development and up- scaling of telecentres in the region. These challenges have made agriculture and other sector service delivery through ICTs in most rural areas difficult.
Poor infrastructure has often paused greater challenges to operations of telecentres since the advent of ICTs. Infrastructure difficulties evolve around internet, fixed and mobile communications infrastructure. Where Internet services are still developing, many telecentre services depend on it. The potential for rapid growth in internet coverage is undermined by inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, poor telephone accessibility and high access costs. Moreover lack of access to energy pauses greater more difficulties for telecentres to deliver services.
Thus infrastructure challenges include:
• Poor infrastructure connectivity services
• Lack of access to energy sources such as hydro-power and alternative energy sources
• Limited km radius coverage by mobile infrastructure Deliberate projects on ICTs in agriculture should be encouraged and adopted. In order to contribute to the resolution of the above challenges, Southern Africa Telecentre Network and its partners have planned to implement the regional ICT Media Forum.
The Media FORUM OBECTIVES
Forum is expected to contribute to the creation of awareness, bringing key issues to discussion and facilitate acceleration towards integrating ICTs and resolve some of the challenges in agriculture development in Southern Africa.
The forum will be attended by a number of media organizations and related institutions in the agriculture.
The Forum will have an opportunity to learn from innovative telecentres cases from the Republic of Tanzania.
The media forum is being carried out as part of the process to raise awareness and stimulate action from within public and private sector for increased awareness, investments and innovation practices in ICTs for rural development particularly how telecentres can effectively support agriculture in Southern Africa The main objectives of the ICT agriculture media Forum are:
i.To raise public awareness on the importance and role of ICTs and telecentres in agricultural development in Southern Africa.
ii.To stimulate public policy responses from the government and its agencies on the status of policy implementation and strategies on ICTs and agriculture
iii.To provide an overview on the challenges and options for increased and sustained use of ICTs in agricultural development with a focus to rural telecentres.
iv.To showcase presentations on existing ICT innovations and interventions in the agriculture sector.
i.Initiated public debate on policy issues affecting ICTs and agriculture development
ii.Commitments from public sector agencies on ICT policy
iii.Accelerated interventions and innovations on ICTs and agriculture
iv.Increased public awareness and recognized role of community telecentres in agricultural marketing and development
v.Wider news coverage and reported pieces of information on the status of ICTs, agriculture and community telecentres in major media houses and website.
The main target groups include:
• Selected media houses; print and electronic media agencies
• Freelance Journalists and students
• Government ministries
• Invited senior NGO and staff
• Private sector agencies involved in the provision of agricultural services.