It is increasingly becoming difficult for countries to penetrate the competitive world of agricultural trade without the use of ICTs. It is therefore imperative for Zambian farmers and other players in the agricultural industry to take decisive steps to embrace ICTs as they promote higher productivity and access to markets not only in Zambia but beyond our boundaries. Use of ICTs in the agricultural sector.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has for many years been using the traditional ICTs namely; radio, television and print media to disseminate up to date technical agricultural information and news to the farming and fishing communities. Zambia is taking positive steps to incorporate new ICTs in the agricultural sector particularly in production and marketing strategies. With the growing demand for technical information generation and dissemination by our famers, and rapid changes in technology, the ministry has in recent years been designing programmes meant to use ICTs in service delivery.

So far a number of ICT programmes have been introduced in the agricultural sector to help farmers increase their production and productivity. Among the notable ones are the following:

• The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has developed websites that provide farmers access to information using the Internet.

• The Ministry, through the National Agricultural Information Services with financial support from the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) has set up agricultural information centers in Kasama on a pilot basis to enable farmers have access to agricultural technical information closer to their doors steps. As NAIS, we have also developed an Internet based platform which enables farmers send questions on agriculture and receive answers using their mobile phones. Currently, this service is only available to Airtel subscribers. This system has been piloted in Kasama and the Ministry has decided to up-scale it to cater for all the farmers country-wide. This will only be done after we get a short code from ZICTA.

• ZARI is also implementing an ICT project aimed at enhancing communication between the research institutions and the farmers and also improves communication and knowledge sharing between researchers and subject-matter experts.

• The Ministry is also using ICTs to manage and store data, a move that has helped to reduce loss of very vital information.

• Another success story of ICTs in the agricultural sector is the Macha Works programme in Choma, where farmers are now able to grow and market sunflower and jatropha using information they get from the Internet.

• The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock is currently exploring and piloting an ICT based voucher system under the Conservation Agriculture Scaling up Productivity and Production (CASPP) and the Farmer Input Support Response Initiative (FISRI) in 12 districts. The initiative aims at improving the efficiency in the distribution process.

• The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock is also using the Digital Pen Technology (DPT). The DPT is a digital pen combined with a mobile phone and a special form. This is a tool that is being used to solve problems of lack of timely information flow from the various collecting sources, particularly veterinary camps that are mainly in remote areas, to decision makers at headquarters. Areas where this technology is being used are Sesheke, Kazungula, Monze, Namwala, Mbala and Nakonde. This tool enhances real time reporting.

• Under the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has been implementing the Livestock Information Management System (LIMS). LIMS is a computer application for collection, collation, transfer, storage and analysis of livestock data and dissemination/sharing of information between the SADC secretariat and member states and other stakeholder in the livestock sector. Districts and provinces send data to National Headquarters who then send the information to the SADC secretariat.

• The SADC Ministers of agriculture in 2004 approved the formulation and implementation of an “Agricultural Information Management System” (AIMS). The SADC AIMS is an Internet based system that provides for storage and access to all types of agricultural information including forestry and wildlife resources.

• The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is piloting the country stat programme in 17 sub-Saharan African countries which include Zambia. The country stat programme is a web based comprehensive database on food and agricultural statistics. The database allows users to access statistical tables through the Internet and allows users to generate tailor made statistical tables, graphs and maps.

• The Ministry with other stakeholders has also developed a national network of institutions involved in Agricultural Research for Development information generation, management and dissemination (Zambia Agricultural Research for Development Information Network) ZAR4DIN. Currently, ZAR4DIN institutions are adapting e-RAILS platform to serve as the AR4D information and knowledge portal providing access to information held in institutional e-repositories and linked to the SADC-FANR, FARA and FAO portals to facilitate information flows and sharing at sub-regional and continental levels.

Conclusion
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a key input for economic development and growth as they offer opportunities for national and global integration while retaining the identity of our traditional societies. In the agricultural sector, ICTs are beginning to increase the economic and social well-being of some smallholder farmers, individuals and communities. With the introduction and better use of ICTs in the agricultural and fisheries sectors, we will enhance the effectiveness, efficiency and transparency of the public sector service delivery. Studies undertaken by the Ministry under the Department of National Agricultural Information Services provide a useful framework for clustering ICTs interventions in the agricultural sector in terms of their relationship with different aspects of the problem of rural poverty, poor agricultural sector performance, low productivity and low farm incomes. As a sector, we call for enhanced public private partnership initiatives in promotion of ICTs in all agricultural sub-sectors to address issues of improving knowledge flows and policy environment in the sector. This will increase the economic viability of farm enterprises by increasing profitable market access and production efficiency, increasing the political empowerment and social inclusion of rural communities. Finally, I wish to reiterate that Zambia cannot afford to lag behind in the use of ICTs in agriculture. It is my sincere belief that the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock will continue to support ICT initiatives aimed at facilitating growth in the agricultural sector. “Investment in agricultural ICTs, is investment in the country’s economy”.