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From the practices and explorations in the surveyed areas, the study group identified seven critical issues for improving the impact of information and communication. These issues were related to policy support, the method of service delivery and the nature of information content. These three factors were key to the relative success of the three models identified.

5.1 Policy support

· Access, empowerment and democratization: supportive policies

Through the surveys, the researchers found that the quality of information service does not completely depend on local economic conditions. What is more important is the awareness of the local government about the need for a service and what is involved in providing it. In some areas where the economy is not well developed, the local government understood the importance of an agricultural information service and issued supportive policies and adopted measures to promote the development of a service system. The achievements in Jinyun, Wuhu and Shucheng counties have proven this point. For example, Jinyun county established a task force, chaired by the deputy secretary of the Party Committee of the county and supported by a member of the Standing Committee of the county Party Committee, the director of the information department and a vice governor from the county government while the heads of the finance, agriculture and telecommunications departments served as members. The county government issued a policy for the purpose of establishing the network.[9] In order to ensure a low cost operation of the information service, local government should coordinate with departments concerned to issue relevant policies and reduce or exempt fees of communication line rentals by the agricultural system, Internet connection costs of township and village information service organizations and farmers. The media should provide free service for dissemination and publishing of agricultural information. For entities engaged in agricultural information service, subsidies and favourable taxation policies that conform to the WTO policies should be granted.

· Information costs, value and financial sustainability: information service costs and public expenditure

Information service aimed at rural areas and farmers is in nature public welfare. Furthermore, the development of an agricultural information system compared with other construction projects is more imperatively needed but the support and funding is relatively quite weak, the coverage is the broadest and the targeted beneficiaries are the greatest in number. Therefore, whether in an economically developed or less developed area, the major actors of agricultural information service system development must necessarily be government at various levels. The functions of generating income by the information service should not be a focus as it may detract from the real objective of providing a necessary service. Some areas in the country attempted to raise revenue by charging for services, but because the income level of farmers in China is low, the approach ended in failure. In addition, in order to avoid further widening of the gap of economic development between the developed and less developed areas that might be brought about by information technology, the central government should tilt more investment to the central and western regions. This would accelerate the speed of information development in the less developed areas in the western region and shorten the "digital divide" between the eastern and western regions of the country.

5.2 Service delivery

· Building on existing systems: consolidation and comprehensive use of resources of rural information service organizations

The practice of township information service stations relying on the township agro-technological station, agricultural economic management station, agricultural broadcast school and cultural station is a good method. It organically combines information with science and technology, information with culture and information with education. It fully uses and taps the advantages of the existing resources. Sanyuan information service station in Wuhu county, Anhui province, guided townships in establishing four specialized associations of pig, chicken, pigeon and economic trees. It has more than 3 000 varieties of books, periodicals and VCDs available to the township stations as well as its office space and computers. Sharing of resources improves their utilization rate.

· Realistic approaches to technologies to support information and communication: integration of a range of technologies

Because of the limited or lack of information equipment owned by farmers in rural areas, both the computer network and various traditional technological measures should be fully tapped so that the modern and traditional means of communication can complement each other. Using television, radio, newspaper and periodicals, bulletin boards, CD-ROMs, blackboards and many other ways to disseminate information along with the computer network will expand the coverage of information.

· Strengthening partnerships: organization of farmers

Due to the fact that agricultural production is small in scale and scattered in operations with a low level of industrialization, the collective power of farmers is rather low at present. It is very difficult for an information service to achieve scale effects, which then causes idleness and waste of information service resources. Therefore, in order to promote "informatization" (a new term referring to the integration of information in society) and realize the integration of information with farmers, we must be good at organizing information and at organizing farmers. Which is to say that at the same time of developing and organizing information service content, we must make an effort to organize the users of information service - the farmers - so as to guide their demand for and consumption of information. This will help make the informatization level in rural areas compatible with the organization level of farmers. The practices of Fuyu county provide a good example: the users of information service are leading agricultural enterprises, specialized associations of farmers, other types of intermediaries and large households of crop farming and animal husbandry. Through them, market, technological, policy and legal information are disseminated to farmers, resolving the problem of the "last mile of connectivity" in agricultural information service. In the process of organizing farmers, policy guidance, technical assistance and appropriate funding support from the government are necessary. There will be difficulties if farmers are relied upon to get things done due to the constraints of their capacity and economic conditions. And, with the guidance and assistance of the government, developing intermediary organizations (association and cooperatives) in rural areas not only complies with the national policies, but also with the international development trend.

· Building capacity: strengthening of training and human resource development

Training is needed for both information service workers at various levels and users of the service, such as enterprises and farmers. The quality of information service workers in rural areas generally needs to be upgraded. They not only lack the capability of collection, processing and analysis of market information, but also lack the knowledge of computer networks and applications. Improved skills among the service workers will help farmers acquire accurate, reliable and useful information. Meanwhile, education and training should be delivered to farmers to improve their capacity in using science and technology, to nurture their awareness about the information revolution and to guide them to consume information.

5.3 Information service content

· Locally-adapted content and context: strengthening of content of information services, focusing on products with competitive advantage or value-added

Collection and development of information content and information service activities must be carried out in relation to the development needs of local leading, unique and advantageous agricultural products. Information services are meant to introduce crop varieties, livestock breeds and fish that are suitable to local areas and that have good market prospects and explain their corresponding technology. The information services also enable technical skills training, organization of production, processing and marketing services and development of corresponding service content. To that end, the effectiveness and accuracy of targeting of information service needs to be improved. At the same time, the content of information service should be conducive to the improvement of local agricultural productivity, to the strengthening of the local production advantage and the competitiveness of local farm products. There needs to be a better sorting of good and bad information. It is important that the content be of good quality and appropriate (locally relevant) to improve the local situation (not overly general or unfocused and causing farmers to adapt to things that are not actually appropriate to their situation).

In a specific case, it has been quite common in recent years that some agricultural products were difficult to be marketed. Usually because of the lack of information and communication, the acreage of agricultural products or the scale of animal raising was too big or an over supply caused an imbalance of the structural supply and demand, which then drove down prices or caused sluggish marketing. Increased production does not necessarily mean income growth for farmers; sometimes farmers suffer from losses in bumper harvest years. Therefore, market information analysis and forecasts for agricultural products must be strengthened to guide farmers in making knowledge-based decisions. Chen Xiaomei, Director of the Henggang Township Information Service Station in Wuhu county, Anhui province, is devoted to information service in rural areas. She carefully studies the markets and provides valuable information to farmers, which helps them make decisions in production and ultimately achieve good results. In 2001, she collected information from various channels and found through analysis that cotton that year would encounter severe problems in marketing. She then published the information, asking farmers not to blindly plant cotton. With the tutelage of her information, the acreage of cotton in the township was reduced to 133 ha. In that year the market price of cotton was only US$0.29/kg, which was only half the price it was in the good years. In 2002, she predicted, again through analysis, that the price of cotton would increase and informed farmers to expand their cotton acreage. The total acreage of cotton in the township reached 533 ha. The price of cotton in 2002 reached US$0.58/kg. This information-guided adjustment of acreage in cotton helped farmers control losses and increase income.

[9] On 25 September 2001, the county Party Committee and government issued Circular No. 149: Notice of further strengthening information service of agricultural technology 110. On 24 July 2002, the county Party Committee and government issued Circular No. 138: Notice of furthering the development of village level information service stations of Agricultural Technology 110.

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