Panel discussion: Evolving role of extension systems, including ICT, as ‘knowledge brokers’ between researchers and farmers
The second panel discussion of the Expert Consultation focused on the evolving role of extension systems, including ICT, as knowledge brokers between researchers and farmers. ICT has become an important tool in promoting and facilitating agriculture development, and helping ensure food security.
The panelists included: Dr. Kiran Kokate, ICAR, India; Dr. Ranny Chaidirsyah, Head, Farming Institution Empowerment, National Centre for Agriculture Extension, Agency for Agricultural Extension and Human Resource Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Indonesia; Dr. Fabrizio Bresciani, Senior Agriculture Economist, The World Bank Group, Indonesia Country office; Mr. Tim Bennett, Managing Director, Managed Growth Group, Australia; Mr. Mohinder Grewal, farmer group representative, India.
ICT – facilitator of research-extension linkages
The first issue discussed was the perception of the ability of ICT to facilitate effective linkages between research and extension. It was pointed out that ICT has been particularly useful for crop diagnoses and assessing crop nutrition aspects, e.g. through photographs, as well as by facilitating access to expert views from different geographical areas. However, a more exciting development is possible if we start perceiving agriculture as an industry rather than as an entrepreneurial activity. Once viewed as an industry, ICT and mobile phone companies can be seen as avenues for transferring cash, dealing with remittances and better financing of agriculture. Increasingly, ICT systems are being used in other sectors of agriculture such as agroprocessing industries for quality checks and traceability of product market type by both small and large farmers in the Asia-Pacific region.
Opportunities are there, but constraints must be addressed
Recognizing the potential role of ICT in bridging the research and extension gap, the panelists noted that while ICT can indeed, facilitate another agricultural revolution, it needs to be used carefully to send the right information to farmers. Every technology has its limitations and there is need for more research on the use of ICT in agriculture. While the advantages of ICT are known, it is challenging to determine its usefulness for farmers. The panel stressed the need for striking a balance between institutions that develop applications for farmers, and their partnership development with the private sector such as mobile phone companies as well as farmers themselves. The Philippines, for example, has an ICT system for managing fertilizers and identifying soil conditions, but farmers need certain skills to use it (e.g. to enter numbers). Such constraints must be well understood.
Two-way communication that facilitates a learning process
The panel, however, pointed out that ICT should not only be used as media for information sharing but its potential to facilitate a learning process for all stakeholders should also be harnessed. Extension workers, who are intermediaries between researchers and farmers, need the capacity and knowledge to use various forms of ICT to facilitate interaction and ensure that correct and timely information is passed on to farmers. Panel members added that a trade-off needs to be made between specific information related to farmers’ conditions as well as general information facilitated by ICT. Certain applications under development are by-passing extension workers.
The panel discussed the ICAR experience with ICT in agricultural extension in India. ICAR has initiated mobile advisory services for extension workers at KVKs and is developing an e-farm service to provide alerts to farmers. However, while ICT services work well in some parts of India, their use in remote locations where availability of electricity is limited, remains a challenge. It is difficult for farmers to charge mobile phones to receive crop advisories from KVKs. Nevertheless, ICT can play an important role as was evident during the recent cyclone in the state of Orissa when the early warning system saved thousands of lives.
Opportunities to work with youth and financing institutions
The skills, motivation and enthusiasm needed to take up opportunities related to ICT vary across the globe. ICT is opening doors for young people who can start thinking of applying ICT tools to agriculture. As such, it was suggested to promote ICT use in agriculture by youth. ICT applications should also be used in the financial sector so that farmers can obtain information about how to get credit or repay bank loans using mobile phones. The panel added that microfinance institutions are very keen on using ICT applications as such institutions are increasingly interested in giving stronger advice and support to farmers with the objective of getting loans repaid.
Role of public-private partnership in ICT
Opportunities also exist to change regulations and policies to make ICT use easier for extension workers and farmers. In Indonesia, for example, the Central Bank is piloting an initiative that allows payments to be made using mobile phones. However, regulations need to be changed to provide such services to farmers on a wider basis. It was also emphasized that people at the grass roots need to be encouraged to collaborate in providing advisory services, market accessibility and electronic traceability.
Role of government
It is crucial that governments understand the potential of ICT in the agriculture sector. In India, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture is providing opportunities for stakeholders to come together to develop sustainable agriculture technologies, such as an ‘Agropedia’ (a farmers’ portal) for extension workers at KVKs. In Indonesia, the government is planning to open an ICT research centre to develop ICT applications specifically designed for farmers as a way of building trust.