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Wednesday, January 18, 2006 

13th January
ICT AND Agribusiness
Godfrey Eneas
The following report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlights the role Information and Communication Technologies can play in Agribusiness, particularly among Small Farmers.ICT is a tool which can change the perception of farming in The Bahamas as this technology appeals to young people.

Follow up on Report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Research Extension and Training Division, Sustainable Development Department.

The reality is that the world is facing a very changed communication environment from the one that existed a decade ago – an environment characterized by a radically different political and economic reality (e.g., growing, although uneven, democratization and economic liberalization); media liberalization and deregulation (e.g., relaxed government control and more room for private sector ownership); and the advent and spread of the new Information and Communication Technologies, or ICTs (e.g., increasingly cheap, more reliable, and more accessible telecommunications).

Skeptics of the scale and form of changes that the new ICTs will bring often argue that technological changes by themselves do not automatically modify human behavior and social institutions. Clearly, communication technologies can alter the human and social fabric – witness the impacts of the printing press, the telegraph, telephone, radio, and cable TV.

We also know from the history of past communication technologies, that some countries and some population segments within countries are likely to benefit more than others; the trend is for poor countries and marginal groups to become further disenfranchised as gaps widen between the information rich and poor.

Can poor countries narrow the "development gap" by harnessing the new ICTs? While these technologies are not a panacea for development problems (e.g., poverty, environmental degradation, food insecurity), there is the potential to combine them with human and social resources and thus achieve major positive changes in the way countries and groups organize economic, political, and everyday social life.

The Internet has become a vast and growing global network that people use to converse, debate, meet, teach, learn, buy, sell, and share virtually every type of information imaginable. Like many communication technologies before it, the Internet potentially enables rural communities to receive outside information and knowledge that can spur development.

However, the observation has also been made that unlike other media (such as radio and TV), the Internet allows every user to potentially be a sender, receiver, narrow caster, and broadcaster. It offers new opportunities for two-way, interactive and horizontal communication. Some observers also believe that the Internet can be effective in supporting "bottom-up articulation" of development needs and perceptions.

Globally, we are seeing the emergence of organizational structures and social institutions that are increasingly based on networks rather than hierarchies. This change, brought about in large part by the new ICTs, represents a potentially powerful increase in horizontal, people-to-people communication and profound new opportunities for more inclusive public and policy debate.

The case for the economic contribution of ICTs does not require much debate as evidenced by the growth of electronic commerce. For many people and countries the spread of ICTs is bringing about new opportunities for economic growth as well as opportunities for social and political discourse. New markets, new products, and new services are being created almost daily on the Internet, all of which bring with them new sources of revenue.

A principle determinant of economic growth is the ability to expand productivity – ICTs clearly have the capacity to increase productivity, i.e., to create more cost-effective output with the same or less input. An important related question is the extent to which the poor nations of the world are able to participate in the globalization and liberalization of trade, of which ICTs are playing an increasingly important role. Evidence the recent protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), with the claim by developing countries that "free" trade has in fact not been so free to them and that it is the large transnational corporations of the North which have benefited most.

The Panos Institute contends that 70% of the new wealth from trade liberalization (estimated at US$200 billion by 2005) will go to the rich industrialized countries of the North and some advanced exporters in Asia and Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is expected to lose about US$1.2 billion a year from "freer trade" (More Power to the World Trade Organization, Panos Institute Briefing, November 1999). As noted by The World Bank, there is the potential for Africa to use ICTs to "leap-frog" into the future, but "If African countries cannot take advantage of the information revolution and surf this great wave of technological change, they may be crushed by it.

In that case, they are likely to be even more marginalized and economically stagnant in the future than they are today" (Increasing Internet Connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1996). Can developing countries, under pressure to open up their economies to free trade even though their own industries may suffer, improve their global competitive position and achieve productivity gains through the use of ICTs? Can they use ICTs to more efficiently coordinate production, create new products and services, and add value to existing ones on a scale that is competitive with the industrialized countries of the North whose information and communication infrastructure is vastly more advanced?

While there is little doubt that Internet-based technologies are spreading rapidly in many developing countries, there is still a serious lack of basic telecommunication infrastructure. The information gap between the rich and the poor is very stark. Access to a telephone illustrates just how far apart the rich and poor are: one quarter of the countries in the world still have fewer than one telephone line per 100 people. The majority of the population in developing countries – 60% of the total – live in rural areas, yet more than 80% of main telephone lines are in urban areas.

The distribution of the new ICTs is no more equal – 84% of mobile cellular subscribers, 91% of all fax machines, and 97% of Internet host computers are in developed countries (World Telecommunications Development Report, ITU, 1998). By comparison, radio covers approximately 75% of Africa’s population and television 40%.

On the other hand, there is evidence that per capita GDP does not always operate as a constraint on the use and availability of ICTs. The priority given to ICTs is a major factor. China illustrates what is possible with regard to rapid increase in the volume and range of domestic and imported ICT products, triggered by strong demand from business and individual users. From a period of five years to 1995, China added nearly 34 million main telephone lines, the majority of which operate out of digital exchanges. This expansion is equivalent to an annual compound growth rate of 40% and has helped to obtain about a sixfold expansion in teledensity from 0.6 to 3.4 per 100 population.

The Internet revolution underway in China will fast-forward if (when) China is admitted to the WTO, which will allow US and other Internet companies to own Internet services.

Internet growth is accelerating faster in developing countries than anywhere else. Internet Web users are expected to quadruple in Africa, Latin America and The Caribbean, and Eastern and Central Europe from 7.6 million today to 25.6 million in 2001. In the Asia-Pacific region, Internet growth will be even faster, rising from 6.5 million to 29.3 million.

However, Internet access will continue to be available only to a small proportion of the people in the poorest countries for many years to come; within these countries, the rural areas, and specific groups within rural areas (e.g., women), will be left even further behind.

To Be Continued...

The Bahama Journal - Bahamas News Online Edition
Copyright Jones Communications Ltd. ©2005 - Nassau, Bahamas.

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