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CHAPTER 6 - ISSUES THAT ARISE ONCE THE MIS IS OPERATIONAL

The most effective MISs start with modest objectives and a fairly simple structure. Once the system is running smoothly and there is a demonstrated interest and commitment among participants, the MIS can expand gradually to meet the additional needs of its users. However, even the best planned MISs are likely to encounter problems at some point during implementation. In many cases, these are relatively minor and can be overcome by small adjustments. In other cases, the problems require more complex solutions. This last section of the field manual addresses the issues of expanding the scope of the MIS as the need arises and dealing with some of the most common problems that occur during implementation.

EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF THE MIS

While every MIS will be different, it is advisable for all MISs to have limited scope in the beginning. Participants should start with modest expectations of what the MIS can accomplish and then focus on meeting those goals. This approach is far more rewarding than starting with high expectations and then failing. During the planning stage it is crucial to prioritize the objectives and activities of the MIS, starting with those that promise the greatest rewards and are the most likely to succeed. Once those are accomplished, and the participants gain experience with the system, it is reasonable to take on more ambitious objectives and to add activities.

There are several ways in which the MIS can expand. The categories below indicate developments which may be appropriate as the MIS demonstrates its value and effectiveness. It should always be kept in mind, however, that expansion should take place only if there is a demonstrated need for additional information or activities. If a small, simple MIS meets the needs of participants, it may be most appropriate to keep it that way.

Increasing the magnitude of the MIS while continuing to gather the same kind of information in the same way.

MIS operations do not necessarily need to change substantially while increasing the number of locations where information is collected and disseminated or increasing the list of products that are surveyed. However, participants must be prepared to respond to the greater management demands of a more complex system. Depending upon the changes made, it may be necessary to recruit and train additional data collectors. The MIS group should review the system that is used to collect, analyse and distribute information to ensure that it can accommodate the increased burden.

Changing the kind of information being gathered

Once the system is functioning, it can be adapted to collect different kinds of information. Perhaps it began by collecting only simple price data. Later, it might add information about the quality of goods being sold, noting how prices vary for different grades or levels of processing. It might also track changes in the quantities sold during the year in order to understand demand patterns. The group may decide to move further into understanding the marketing chain, rather than limiting the MIS to the relationship with local traders. An expansion of this kind may require recruiting more data collectors or demand that existing collectors spend more time on the project. It may require additional training both in data collection and analysis.

Using the same data for different types of analysis.

A third possibility for expanding the MIS would be to keep the same data, but to analyse it in new ways. Price data used to compare the daily rate between markets could also track changes over the year in a given market. This would not usually involve any changes in data collection, but record-keepers and analysts might require additional training. It might also be necessary to train users so that they can take advantage of the new information.

Expanding users capacity to exploit information.

The nature of the information that is collected and analysed does not necessarily need to change in order to expand the MIS. Expansion can focus on training users in different ways to use information that is already being collected and disseminated. Perhaps users already know how to utilize price information to select the best marketing outlet. The next step may be to train them to use price information to calculate profit margins and decide whether they should sell their goods or store them in anticipation of higher prices.

Using information in different ways.

The MIS may identify new ways of using information to benefit the community. Instead of just providing information to individual users, for example, the group may be able to encourage changes in the market. If quality standards have been vague, perhaps the producers can work with buyers to establish clear criteria for grading products. If certain people in the market chain are found to be disregarding existing standards or otherwise unfairly exploiting producers, systematic reporting of these practices may encourage local authorities to enforce the rules. This type of MIS activity requires a higher level of organization in the user group, but it may have a significant impact if it empowers producers relative to others in the marketing chain. It may require training in new skills such as negotiation and conflict resolution.

Just as the planning of the initial MIS was done in a gradual and systematic manner, any expansion of goals and activities needs to be undertaken with equal care. The steps of the initial design process should be followed when there is any significant expansion in the MIS to ensure that all the potential implications of the changes have been considered. Any expansion must be carefully thought out to ensure that the benefits of increasing information outweigh the costs in time and money of obtaining that information.

MIS EXPANSION IN THE PHILIPPINES

The Sta. Catalina MIS expanded along several dimensions as the experience progressed. Starting with one black-board, the MIS eventually posted information in seven locations in response to farmers' requests. Farmers also asked for price information about additional products, especially near harvest time. Fresh and processed pine-apple were added, for example, in response to such requests. As time went on, participants realized that they could use the system to gather other types of useful information. They began sharing information about traders (their names and locations, the amount of produce being demanded in different markets, and quality and packaging requirements. Traders, who had initially been suspicious of the activity, realized that it could be useful to them as well. They identified potential suppliers by telling the data collectors what they needed. The data collectors announced the traders' requests on the MIS blackboards which facilitated contact between producers and suppliers.

When the project was evaluated, the team made several additional recommendations for how the system could be expanded to complement what participants had already done. They particularly identified how participants might be trained to make more effective use of the information being generated by the MIS. The evaluators also noted that information from the MIS might be used to identify how value could be added through processing.

In another Philippines site, a group of upland farmers using an MIS to collect price information from different markets realized that it could earn more by sending their product to a distant urban centre. They identified transport as a major impediment. So, they decided to study the transport market and seek ways to decrease their costs. Eventually, they determined they could benefit by sharing the costs of transport and marketing. They began using the community bulletin board not only for price information but to allow farmers to indicate when they had produce to transport. In this way farmers could find others interested in sharing the cost of a transportation.

PROBLEMS THAT COMMONLY OCCUR IN IMPLEMENTING AN MIS

A number of problems often plague MIS implementors but, in almost all cases, it is possible to find creative solutions. The key, as discussed in the monitoring section above, is to catch the problems early so solutions can be found before the problems become so large they challenge the credibility and viability of the system. The following list notes some of the difficulties that have been encountered by MIS groups to date. It does not attempt to be comprehensive, nor does it prescribe solutions since standardized solutions rarely fit real problems. It does, however, note some of the solutions that MIS groups have found for their own situations.

Lack of standardized package sizes and quality grades

It will sometimes be difficult to gather information on product prices because they are sold in irregular measures and/or with a mix of goods that vary in quality. There are several solutions to this problem.

Difficultv obtaining sensitive data

MIS data collectors are almost always users who have volunteered to collect information. They have no particular status or credibility with traders or other people from whom they collect information. This may lead to suspicion and resistance. In the Philippines, one group of traders thought data collectors were sent by the government to locate illegal fuelwood and charcoal producers. Another group of traders suspected that the data collectors were agents sent by foreigners.

The Philippine MIS issued vests and, ultimately, identification cards to data collectors in an effort to clarify their role. There are alternate approaches.

Attempts to discredit the system

In many cases, the purpose of the MIS is to change the power relationship between the producers and others higher in the marketing chain. The more successful the MIS, the more likely it will provoke those who resent the increasing power of the producers. If the MIS threatens the information monopoly held by traders, for example, the traders may attempt to discredit the information collectors and the entire MIS system. This happened in the initial steps of an MIS that was established for fruit sellers in Brazil. Traders, who felt threatened by the system, spread rumours that the MIS information was unreliable and false. System operators responded by making sure that the information they provided was absolutely flawless, thereby maintaining the trust of users. Over time the traders realized that the information service could help them too. They began using the system to get information about what producers wanted to sell and were able to expand the number of products they traded (Schubert, 1983).

If this problem is encountered several strategies can be used.

Lack of government support

Government support can facilitate an MIS, and government opposition can ruin it. In some cases, governments will oppose the implementation of an MIS if they fear that it will aid illegal efforts or reveal market irregularities. In the Philippines, the government requested that price data not be gathered for charcoal and fuelwood. It feared that the provision of this information would encourage illegal collection from forest reserves. Governments also may have problems with a system that publishes data indicating that guaranteed minimum producer prices are not being enforced.

Misuse of information by outsiders

The MIS is generally intended for a particular group of users, such as producers of NTFPs in a given area. However, the information it provides is often available to anyone, particularly if the information is disseminated in a non-exclusive way such as a public blackboard or radio broadcast. Often this will not pose any problems. In some cases, though, non-participants can exploit the information and perhaps even use it to the detriment of the intended beneficiaries. Traders who have access to the boards might use the information to set a price lower than what they otherwise would have paid. The risk of this happening is greatest when the MIS users have access to few traders or market outlets. If this becomes a problem, there are several possible solutions.

Misuse of the system by operators

MIS operators may sometimes try to distort information in hopes of gaining leverage in the market. In Thailand, an MIS published higher prices than were actually being paid because the operators thought that if they published the real price, this would lead traders to lower their offering price (Schubert, 1983). While this may give producers a short-term advantage, it is not a viable strategy in the long term and will severely erode the credibility of the MIS. Incorrect information is unlikely to improve the prices farmers receive, and it will decrease their ability to bargain with traders and risk creating hostility and suspicion on all sides. There are some suggestions to combat this problem.

Oversupply as a result of MIS information

MIS planners are often concerned that the information distributed by the system will not be used. But, problems also can arise from overuse. When producers use the information to locate the most lucrative markets, they sometimes flood markets and cause prices to drop. A similar problem may occur when producers use the MIS to plan harvests of NTFPs or cropping patterns for the next year. Everyone tries to move into the product with the highest price. But, when many people use the same logic, supply will increase so much in the following year that price may be driven down. In this circumstance, there are various alternatives.

As problems arise, it is important to keep the objectives of the MIS in mind and search for creative solutions to overcome the difficulties. As groups plan and implement their MISs and, equally important, determine how to solve the problems that inevitably arise, they will build valuable skills in both marketing and community organization. These skills are essential for increasing the leverage of small-scale producers and traders in the complex markets for non-timber forest products.

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