Those are examples of how agricultural market information services (MIS) - charged with collecting and disseminating data on prices for farm produce - are attempting to solve their biggest problem: getting the information to farmers. "More than ever before, producers in developing countries need up-to-date market information", says Andrew Shepherd, of AG's Marketing and Farm Supply Group. "It enables them to plan their production in line with market demand, schedule their harvests at the most profitable times, decide to which markets they should send their produce, and negotiate on a more even footing with traders."
Unfortunately, Shepherd says, the track record of many MISs "has not been very satisfactory". An FAO survey in the mid-1990s showed that, while many developing countries have set up some type of market information service, the vast majority were "primarily data-gathering exercises" and furnished very little commercially useful information to the farming community.
Radio is also the preferred medium in Mali, which radically restructured its MIS in 1999 - the government took over funding of the service from a multi-donor programme, passed management over to the Mali Chambers of Agriculture (APCAM), and set up 22 decentralized offices throughout the country. Under contract with APCAM, 24 local radio stations now disseminate price and quantity information collected by the units. In Ghana, where price information is collected from a large number of local markets, the national MIS has not yet taken full advantage of some 45 local FM stations now operating in the country. But a pilot programme based on the Asesewa market in the Eastern region has successfully used three FM stations, serving different language groups, to encourage farmers to go to market when the price is right.
Internet and cellphones. African radio stations themselves could take on much of the task of data collection, thanks to the expansion of communication technology in the region. In South Africa, for example, the Agritel web site (http://www.agritel.co.za/) offers daily information about prices in all of the country's wholesale markets, while the South African Futures Exchange (http://www.safex.co.za/) disseminates grain futures prices.
Where Internet does not reach, fax machines, mobile telephones and computers often do. In Cambodia, an FM radio station in Phnom Penh provided daily market information directly from a reporter who roamed the city's markets with a mobile 'phone gathering prices and interviewing traders and consumers. "The increasing availability of mobile or cell-phone networks in Africa," Shepherd says, "raises the possibility of collecting information locally, while processing and distribution to radio stations could be centralized, such as in Uganda."
While modern information technology has still barely touched many developing countries, Shepherd says its potential is emerging, often in farming areas long associated with rural poverty. "In Mali, eight of those decentralized MIS units are linked by an FM radio-telephone system, and are equipped with modems, which allow them to share price information by e-mail among themselves and with their head office in Bamako. Now farmers are now asking to use this system to place 'buy and sell' offers, opening up the possibility of electronic commerce in food crops."
Published April 2001