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1. Introduction

Agricultural cooperatives in developing regions are being hit from all sides. They are receiving far less support from government than they have in the past, and with the liberalization of agricultural markets, many of them are struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive business environment. Member services are declining and farmers are leaving. The world is changing and these changes tend to favour small, decentralized organizations that are able to respond rapidly to the ever-shifting demands of the market.[1]

In large measure, this transformation is being enforced by the liberalization and globalization of markets and the growing use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). If agricultural cooperatives are to survive, they must learn how to compete. One obstacle to achieving this is that information-processing in farmer cooperatives in developing countries is notoriously slow; most large cooperatives still operate with manual or semi-manual accounting systems. Such systems are labour-intensive to maintain, leave plenty of occasions for errors and create opportunities for abuse. It is difficult for managers to be competitive when they must work with outdated or inaccurate information.

The immediate advantage that computerization brings is the enhanced ability to handle large amounts of information. The introduction of modern information and communications technologies (ICTs) in cooperatives can significantly improve results: they can facilitate the collection, analysis, storage and reporting of information much faster and more accurately than could be accomplished using manual systems.

Computerization also can help cooperative managers streamline operations, cut operating costs, enlarge their networks of members and affiliated institutions, increase sales and respond to signals from far away markets. Connecting to the global network of the Internet also has its advantages, allowing faster communication with members, partners and clients at a fraction of the cost.

Yet experience shows that the benefits do not come as quickly as might be expected. That happens because computerization is more than just a technical issue involving the installation and linking of a few computers and the development or use of appropriate software. It also means changes in work habits and the way people relate to one another; these behavioural and institutional changes cannot easily be predicted or planned for beforehand. They are the result of experimentation and innovation after adoption of the technology, and this can take time.

Why these guidelines?

Currently, those agricultural cooperatives considering computerization have no reference book to turn to for guidance. This manual is intended to help fill that gap and ensure that their first attempt to computerize will be a successful one. It is based on a review of computerization experiences in Asia, Africa and South America.

Intended readers:

This manual is written for developing country cooperatives that are just starting to consider whether or not or how to computerize. Its intended target audience includes managers, trainers and policy makers with little experience in working with computers.

Structure and format:

The information in this booklet is presented in a simple, well illustrated and easy-to-understand style. It is supplemented by practical examples of how agricultural cooperatives in developing countries tackle computerization problems at local level.

It is organized in the following sections:

1. Introduction to this manual.

2. Why should cooperatives computerize? Advantages and risks of computerizing.

3. The computerization project: stages of a typical computerization plan. Things to look for at each stage, advice and suggestions.

4. A case example of a cooperative that designs a computerization project, developed in more detail in the Annexes.

5. Conclusions and recommendations on the application of technologies in cooperatives.

6. Annexes: a glossary, references, a series of checklists, and more detail on the case study.

[1] Classical definitions of "information technology (IT)" tend to distinguish between computer hardware, computer software and telecommunications. "Information technology" comprises various technology elements that are used to collect, transform, manage or transmit data or information. These component technologies may exist alone or, more commonly, as part of systems which are themselves collectively becoming part of a larger "information infrastructure". With the increasing importance of telecommunications, the use of the Internet and mobile telephony, and convergence of technologies, the preferred term information and communication technologies (ICT) is more comprehensive and appropriate.

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