Smart agriculture with smart technology
The effect of urbanisation is two-fold. On one hand, it boosts development indicators such as economic growth, productivity and human development indexes and on the other hand, the intensifying of the tertiary industry results in more people shifting from the agriculture sector. This might result into a big threat for an agri-dependent country like Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, where agriculture is still a major source of income for 14 million farming households, lack of access to information, along with various other factors demand immediate attention. One cannot stress enough on the need for information regarding agriculture which is vital for farmers to make informed decisions.
The last ten years have been a decade of tremendous growth in information communication technology (ICT) in Bangladesh. Currently, the telecom network covers all 64 districts of Bangladesh and almost 84 percent of rural households carry mobile phones. This can be partially attributed to the availability of cheap mobile handsets and the oligopolistic nature telecommunication industry that allows mobile phone users to enjoy affordable call tariffs and internet packages. Other than the telecommunications sector, growth is significantly realised through the availability of private sector owned ICT based services, union digital centres and internet cafés at the country's union level. In the context of service availability, what started with agriculture helplines by telecom operators, have expanded to SMS based services and government developed software that provides accurate agriculture information. Private sector agriculture input companies have also established ICT based services aimed at providing product specific and general agriculture information to farmers. The agriculture input sector has effective networks of farmers across Bangladesh, and the ICT can enable these companies to reach out to them faster and more economically. This scenario is already evident as leading seed, aqua-chemicals and fish feed companies are adopting various ICT based mechanisms to reach out to farmers in order to ensure proper usage of their products. This has a two-fold benefit; firstly, this allows companies to present themselves in an empathetic light to their farmers, and secondly, accurate and timely information enables farmers to enjoy higher yields and enables companies to retain their customers. These services are concerned with providing customer care solutions for farmers and is considered part of marketing initiatives in order to reach out to a wider scale of farmers; however, the input sector is only at a nascent stage of utilising ICT. Strong linkages between software developers and input companies with sufficient knowledge of information seeking behaviour of farmers is required to design appropriate farmer-friendly ICT services - none of which currently exist fully in the industry.
Designing the right kind of services is one of the most critical elements to ensure its usage at the farmer level. Unlike many other sub-continental countries, one of the major limitations in designing ICT based services for the rural farmers in Bangladesh is the low literacy and technology adverseness. This confines the type of services that can be designed for the said demographic. While farmers in Africa can benefit from smart text messaging giving them vital information on farming, farmers in Bangladesh are unable to enjoy that luxury. SMSs and other pull-based ICT services that require farmers to register/subscribe also do not work because of their complexity and because farmers are not in the habit of utilising their mobile phones for any other purposes than making or receiving phone calls. ICT services that involve engaging "call-centre" agents are therefore the way to go. There are currently plenty of services using this approach to give information to farmers, for example, agriculture helplines that benefit farmers by solving their queries on disease prevention, general agriculture practices, etc. Solutions provided for critical problems by these services are seen to have direct impact on farmers' incomes.
Although various ICT services exist, their usage is limited due to lack of awareness. Carefully designing promotional activities for the usage of these services is therefore highly essential. It is a component that demands careful attention, but is more than often not prioritised. Unless these services are properly presented to farmers, they will continue to utilise existing and traditional sources of information in times of crisis, and reach out to ICT only when the need for information is dire and traditional sources of information have not sufficed. Traditional promotional tools such as hype creation through music and drama, SMS alerts and recorded voice calls lead to short-term increase in the usage of ICT services but fail to bring about a lasting effect. Bringing about behaviour change at the farmer level will require campaigns targeted towards changing farmers' perception of technology. The goal should be to position ICT as a comprehensive and reliable source of agriculture information. This again is time consuming and highly expensive.
The growth of ICT in the context of Bangladesh is promising. For ICT to benefit the nation's 14 million farming households through agriculture information, it is essential to design ICT solutions that are user friendly and cost effective. Young farmers who will constitute the farming population in the future will be able to make use of a variety of ICT services due to their tech-savviness and better literacy than their preceding generations. The future of ICT for agriculture also includes telecom operators, agriculture content providers, software developers and various other market actors designing new services targeting farmers. Leading agriculture input companies who are currently utilising ICT to expedite services can also expedite the expansion of ICT by showcasing the industry the benefits of it and share their experiences for other companies to build on. Lastly and importantly, the continuity of favourable government policies and regulations (on internet and call tariffs) will be a pre-requisite on a broad level for the rapid expansion and utilisation of ICT in all aspects of development.
The writer is Senior Business consultant, Swisscontact-Katalyst.