ROME, Italy, 20 September -- Poor farmers are using mobile phones to get information about agricultural market prices. Radio stations are broadcasting programmes on how to treat sick animals. Rural women's groups are using the Internet to exchange information on how to farm organically. These are just a few good examples of how access to information and technology can improve rural lives in developing countries.

But the opportunities offered by information and communication technologies (ICTs) - telephone, radio, video and Internet - are unevenly distributed. Barely 6 percent of the world's population is linked to the Internet, and many people on the planet have never made a telephone call. There is growing disparity between those who have access to information and those who do not. The latter are the majority, and most of them live in rural areas of developing countries.

"We have a rural digital divide, and bridging it is not just about technology and providing more computers, radios and mobile phones," says Francisco Perez Trejo of FAO's World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT). "It is a political matter of making the information more accessible, and this requires political will, education and funds."

That is the reality behind this year's Consultation on Agricultural Information Management (COAIM), taking place 23-25 September at FAO Headquarters in Rome. This second biannual meeting gathers high-ranking officials from agriculture ministries, UN organizations, specialized agencies and intergovernmental organizations. They will discuss, among other issues, how to close the digital divide through better information exchange and management.

FAO has many agricultural information-systems, dealing with pest management, animal diseases, food security etc. What is needed is a mechanism for sharing and managing information across borders, sectors and social gaps.

In working to bridge the rural digital divide, FAO collaborates with many strong partners, including the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and universities and research centres around the world. FAO has launched an outreach programme that helps groups from villages to the international level adapt and integrate existing tools and methods to their own needs. Many projects involving ICTs and information management are flourishing. Examples include:

  • Rural radio: FAO has worked with rural radio for more than 30 years. For billions of people in rural areas, where illiteracy rates are high and electricity, phones and Internet access are lacking, radio is still the most accessible, economic, and popular means of communication. FAO helps with establishing radio stations and training of broadcasters. In addition FAO helps broadcasters with fact sheets on food security issues and provides information on weather, post-harvest operations, early warning systems, food safety and nutrition. The broadcasters can incorporate this material into radio programmes relevant to local farmers. FAO is also helping to connect community radio stations to the Internet and training broadcasters to collect and adapt information for radio programmes.

  • Rural women's network: The new information technologies offer a unique opportunity to end the silence and invisibility of rural women. FAO has been one of the driving forces behind the Dimitra project, initiated in 1998, which aims to help rural women by highlighting their contributions to their communities and countries. The Dimitra project - named after Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture - has set up an online database of organizations, projects and publications. ICTs are also used for for surveys and to convene e-forums on relevant issues, such as "Women and access to land" and "Gender, ICTs, good governance and democracy". Participating in the Dimitra project worldwide are more than 850 non-governmental, civil society and research organizations that work with ruralwomen,Partners share information through both ICTs and more traditional means of communication, and the project disseminates information to a mailing list of more than 4000 recipients worldwide.

  • Emergency situations: When a disaster hits, accurate and timely information on a country's agricultural sector is crucial, and FAO has for years helped governments deal with emergencies. After Venezuela was hit by disastrous floods in December 1999, FAO helped assess the country's food and crop situation and the need for agricultural rehabilitation and emergency assistance. A key part of the effort was the creation of an Emergency Intranet Network - a new tool in relief operations. It provided the Ministry of Agriculture with immediate access to crucial information, such as damage to crops, anticipated harvest and price data, and satellite images of affected areas.

"In FAO we use technology, but our main focus is on the content and how we can make it useful to farmers as well as to decision-makers in our member countries," says Mr Perez Trejo. "Information exchange is essential to all, and more accessible information means more participation and better decision making at all levels."

The main aim of this year's COAIM meeting is to get countries to become more active in bridging the digital divide. It is also important to encourage international agencies to collaborate more on this issue.

Topics to be addressed include improving the flow of information, coordination of capacity-building efforts, and development of guidelines and standards for information management. Several side events will take place on gender and agricultural information management, rural radio and food security, and FAOSTAT, FAO's statistical database.