With regard to Internet use in support of rural and agricultural development, applications fall into five main areas: economic development for agricultural producers, community development, research/education, small and medium enterprise (SME) development, and media networks.

Economic development applications for agricultural producers

"The change to a global market economy over the last ten years has produced some very big changes for small producers. Now they need to understand global market situations to make better decisions about timing, marketing and management"
Monica Besoain, fieldworker for the Chilean NGO, INPROA, Rengo, Chile (personal communication, July, 1996).

Rural communities and small-scale agricultural producers are deeply affected by global economic, environmental and political forces. The idea that communities of small-scale agricultural producers are isolated and living in closed, self-sufficient societies is a myth. Global trade relationships, such as GATT, NAFTA, and MERCOSUR, place rural communities and small-scale agricultural producers squarely in the middle of global market realities. Trade decisions in Rome or Chicago today affect campesinos in Mexico within hours. Interest rates, global commodity situations, changing trade patterns, transportation developments and tariff structures all impact upon even the smallest farm operation. Without knowledge and without the communication capabilities required to access, analyse and share the information required to create knowledge, small producers remain at the mercy of global market forces.

With knowledge, small producers can have a competitive footing with larger farm operations and corporate agriculture. Small producers often have the flexibility to quickly change crop choices, develop products for small niche markets and even market directly to the consumer or commodity broker in distant countries (cf. Bridgehead - OXFAM Canada; or International Small Business Consortium). Small-scale, labour intensive farming can reduce input costs and provide consumers with higher food quality, improved food safety and better food taste.

When knowledge is harnessed by strong organizations of small producers, strategic planning can be used to provide members with lower cost inputs, better storage facilities, improved transportation links and collective negotiations with buyers. The International Federation of Agricultural Producers, recognizing the value of the Internet to its members, is investigating the possibility of establishing a global Internet communication network among farmer organizations. If successful, this initiative could enable farmer organizations to gain a much greater voice in the world of international agricultural policy (vertical communication) and enhance communication among farmers and farmer organizations (horizontal communication).

Organizations of small producers want and need instant information on global market prices, negotiation techniques and strategies, analyses of product potentials in various markets, new production and marketing techniques, new transportation systems, and global trade rules. Information that can reduce the costs of transactions and improve prices received at markets (or open new markets) is highly valued. These organizations can and do act as communication conduits or intermediaries, facilitating the flow of information between local people and the rest of the world.

The global Internet is one tool that can enhance this flow of information for organizations of small producers. It is an inexpensive way to communicate and access global information. Local Internet services can be easily managed by well-organized local user groups and farmer organizations. Information and analyses can be tailored to local, regional and national knowledge and communication needs and realities. When combined with national and global market information systems, and with the ability to communicate quickly with potential buyers and brokers, local Internet systems become valuable strategic planning and decision making tools.

Local agricultural producers can benefit from the Internet without having access to computers or phone lines. Community information centre personnel can easily post market prices at places where farmers gather, can liaise with local radio stations and newspapers, and can channel information through interpersonal networks, simple newsletters and posters. Used wisely, the Internet can be part of an extended media mix for both gathering information from vertical channels and disseminating information through existing horizontal communication channels.

Community development applications

"Modern communication technologies, when systematically applied and adapted to conditions in rural areas of developing countries, can be used for rural communication to increase participation, disseminate information and share knowledge and skills. The establishment of new institutional frameworks, including all stakeholders, which are autonomous and income generating, can lead to sustainable and cost-effective efforts, as opposed to working only with government agencies"
Manuel Calvelo Rios, FAO communication for development in Latin America project. FAO. 1996b.

Local community oriented Internet services are also valuable when placed in the service of rural and agricultural development organizations which act as local communication conduits or intermediaries. Along with providing improved market knowledge, they can also:

Research/education applications

"Toolnet is a network for small scale development projects that fosters exchange of information, experiences, expertise and solutions to technical problems. It provides multifunctional electronic mail to link field workers, local organizations technological institutions, international development organizations and individuals... directed toward technology transfer among developing countries... Points are operating or planned in about 25 countries worldwide. "
Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA). 1995. World Bank.

Within national, regional and international research communities, there is increased attention toward "participatory research" strategies (Chambers and Gujit, 1996). These strategies place farmers and rural residents at the centre of the research process and enable them to enrich their knowledge base and share that knowledge with one another, field workers, researchers and decision-makers at various levels. Internet use among intermediary organizations and leaders involved in participatory research can provide a cost effective method for documenting and sharing lessons learned and research results.

Internet use also has the potential to strengthen linkages between and among farmer organizations extension workers, researchers, policy makers and other actors in a farming system. For example, international organizations such as the Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA) and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) are working to advance knowledge and communication systems to enable intermediary organizations to create local information resources and share them around the world, and to access common information databases and learning tools related to sustainable and low input agriculture.

The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has a highly advanced Integrated Voice and Data Network (IVDN) to link member research organizations around the world and provide low cost member voice and data communications using Internet protocols. In only a year the CGIAR has linked three quarters of the international agricultural research centres to the system. IVDN services include:

This powerful network of research organizations has not yet developed significant electronic linkages to intermediary organizations and national agricultural research centres (NARS) that might assist in the dissemination of information and establishment of participatory research strategies [The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) has proposed a network information programme to link NARS nationally and regionally in East Africa and to assist in facilitating dissemination of research information in East Africa (CTA,1995: Thought should be given to developing similar projects supported by other agencies in coordination with CTA.]. However, once intermediary organizations are connected to the Internet through local means, or through international networks such as the IVDN, the potential to develop and strengthen these linkages will be very high. The same is also true for educational institutions in developing countries whose students and faculty members could gain access to research information, and share their own research results with the CGIAR, NARS, FAO and with other institutions involved in rural and agricultural research.

An investigation of the possibility of enabling NARS to access the CGIAR IVDN would be a very good first step in the process of assisting NARS and intermediary organizations to harness the power of the Internet. In addition, the vast information resources of the CGIAR system (including information databases such as AGRIS) can be made generally accessible via the Internet, thus providing the world, including information-poor researchers in developing countries, with easy access to a huge depository of international agricultural research information.

The cost of accessing printed academic materials within developing countries is usually so high that students and faculty members have great difficulty acquiring books and journals. Also, the time required to obtain printed materials from overseas can be long enough to render some information out-dated by the time it arrives. Via the Internet, information published on-line can be accessed almost instantly and at a small fraction of the cost of obtaining printed materials. Information on the Internet is easy to access and archival lists of resources can be easily reviewed and assessed in remote locations.

Electronic distance education services are already in use in North America, Australia and Europe (particularly among people in rural areas), and with the continued growth of Internet access in developing countries, there is a very good chance that similar services will develop significant demand. Over 87 percent of the rural Internet users involved in the University of Guelph's Rural Internet User Survey indicated that they were very interested in taking advantage of on-line courses and other structured learning opportunities via the Internet (Mayhew and Richardson, 1996), yet there are few such opportunities available to meet their level of interest.

Distance education, as well as traditional education, partnerships between universities in the North and the South (such as the partnerships between the University of Guelph and universities in Cameroon and India to develop distance education extension worker training programmes) have proven to be beneficial to the institutions involved. With the assistance of Internet tools, these partnerships can be further strengthened, and Internet learning resources can be cooperatively developed across oceans to be utilized by participants in developing nations. Of course, this process can work in the other direction as well, to enable students in the North to learn more about the conditions, challenges, potentials and knowledge development of the South.

Overall, the Internet holds significant potential to enhance learning and research relationships among researchers, academics and students, wherever they are located. The list of potential applications is infinite and thousands of informal linkages of this sort take place every day on Internet discussion groups. Development agencies can play a role in helping to formalize and provide credentials and diplomas for people who participate in specific electronic learning initiatives delivered via the Internet.

Within FAO's Sustainable Development Department, for example, there are existing training and curriculum development projects focused on communication for development and extension worker training. Other FAO departments and many other agencies have similar projects. The materials and processes created within these projects can be adapted for Internet distance education delivery. Such distance education projects could take advantage of the power of the Internet to facilitate local and international learner interaction and team learning contexts based on group learning projects, as opposed to the traditional correspondence style of distance education.

Small and medium enterprise development

"The removal of international trade barriers has brought quickly changing global markets. Large international corporations can now compete for the SMEs' (small and medium enterprises') market, but SMEs traditionally have not had the infrastructure and necessary resources to fight back. Our Mission (is) to provide a productive and professional Internet/WWW-based network to help SMEs communicate about business needs, share their resources and expand their markets. "
Mission statement for the International Small Business Consortiums.

Private sector businesses, large and small, are using the Internet to reach new markets, promote products and services globally, and access critical business and financial information.

Semex Canada and Gencor (formerly United Breeders of Canada), major producers and international exporters of bull semen for artificial insemination, advertise their genetic resources with full colour Internet catalogues with pictures of sires. These companies now receive requests for products from beef and dairy producers from countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Japan who learn about their products only from the Internet. Rural food producers in North America now use the Internet to sell a wide variety of products including live lobsters and packages of apples, oranges, grapefruit, cheeses, smoked meats, pastries and pies. Producers of rural crafts and manufactured goods sell everything from clothing to furniture over the Internet, and use the Internet to organize support networks (cf. Women in Rural Economic Development). The Internet represents a global storefront for such rural and remote businesses, providing them with a degree of access to customers never before possible.

The tourism sector has been quick to recognize the benefits of the Internet for advertising destinations, tours and holiday services. For all of the countries visited during his recent FAO Internet fact-finding mission, the author was able to make use of World Wide Web travel information from the host countries in order to make travel plans. With full colour pictures, and information on hotels, weather, attractions, events, travel tips, currency conversion rates, visa information and much more, travelers are able to obtain timely and accurate information and make informed destination choices.

Of particular interest are the World Wide Web sites for "ecotourism," game parks, and adventure tours in rural areas of Southern Africa where rural tourism is a growing industry (cf. Africa Tour Net). Tourism operators in rural and remote areas have a difficult time marketing their destinations through traditional media due to production and distribution costs. The Internet now represents a very inexpensive way for them to showcase their sites to the world and interact directly with potential tourists.

News media networks

The news media in developing countries have also been on the forefront of developing Internet applications. For example, in Zambia, both national daily newspapers mirror their daily copy on the World Wide Web, making the local news accessible to local Zambian Internet users as well as to expatriate Zambians who live around the world. E-mail discussion groups provide expatriates and nationals with an opportunity to discuss the daily news with one another regardless of where they reside. A discussion group the author joined to research this paper generated a minimum of 30 e-mail messages per day! Such e-mail discussion groups for expatriates and nationals exist for virtually every developing country in the world and represent a relatively untapped resource for accessing the views, ideas and creativity of members of civil society with regard to development policy and initiatives.

In addition to the latter news and information applications, organizations such as the Inter Press Service Third World News Agency (IPS) use the Internet to source news stories from local writers in developing countries and share those stories with international wire services such as Associated Press. IPS is also able to provide Internet feeds that enable African news media to have access to African news from around the continent. This is particularly relevant to rural radio stations and other rural newspaper and newsletter producers that would otherwise have been unable to obtain the same news from other sources. IPS can also provide an outlet for rural news writers to share their stories regionally, nationally and globally. Similar Internet strategies for rural radio networks, which might also incorporate digital audio transmissions, may well emerge in the near future.