Bolstering the United Arab Emirates' AGRICENT
First agricultural information centre in Middle East expands as E-agriculture trendsetter
27 August 2004, Rome - In a bid to facilitate access to information on economic development, agricultural and food security issues in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates' Agricultural Information Centre (UAE-AGRICENT) is embarking on a new strategic phase to tap information resources in the region and make them readily available to local, regional and, eventually, worldwide users.
A recent visit to FAO headquarters by UAE agricultural officials and technicians triggered a five-year plan that will produce a regionwide network for information dissemination and sharing, covering an area where mounting epidemics and animal health risks, as well chronic lack of food and water resources, continue to pose serious challenges to food security and poverty alleviation.
UAE-AGRICENT was originally established in 2001 as a national agricultural information centre by the UAE government with assistance from FAO. In June 2002, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and FAO began work to bolster its role to act as a regional and inter-regional online resource for agricultural information management, in coordination with FAO's World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT).
Targeted, up-to-date information
The centre currently provides up-to-date information in Arabic and English on a wide variety of farming, fisheries, forestry, and food security topics, including animal genetics, health hazards, safe breeding practices, plant science and production and natural resource management.
In addition to being a permanent source for regional country profiles, the centre also plays an increasingly important role in issuing early warning reports on emergencies such as water shortages and plant and animal disease outbreaks.
A project in the making is a comprehensive database of animal quarantine practices, recently designated a priority by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), comprising Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, due to the mounting risks of animal disease epidemics from imported livestock.
The collaboration between UAE-AGRICENT and FAO-WAICENT intends to make the most of the United Arab Emirates' strategic location, coupled with the knowledge and expertise of FAO, to achieve tangible development outcomes from better agricultural information management.
But according to FAO project coordinator Francisco Perez-Trejo, WAICENT's Senior Advisor, this "goes far beyond assistance or capacity-building per se, as it actually involves working closely, hand in hand, to serve common goals".
"Actually, FAO is delegating authority. It has used its expertise to set up systems in areas of need in the region, and these systems have extended spontaneously through local use, and in line with specific needs, to be applied in ways we would have never dreamed of," says Perez-Trejo.
A case in point is the interactive application ASK AGRICULTURE, which currently receives more than 20 000 hits a month from users throughout the Middle East and beyond. It puts them directly in touch with experts in the UAE and from other agricultural centres to tackle specific issues quickly.
The UAE's Assistant Under Secretary for Human Resources, Finance and Information Technology at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Abdullah Mohamed Al Eter, underlined the "here and now need for AGRICENT as a regional focal point for information for a wide variety of users in the Middle East and beyond".
According to Mr Al Eter, "the Agricentre's Web facilities come within the framework of E-Government, aiming to simplify communications in agriculture between data sources such as the UAE-AGRICENT and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, on the one hand, and all categories of users with different information access capabilities and needs on the other". E-Government is the use of information and communication technologies in the service of the general public by facilitating access to services and general information.
Using the most sophisticated information technology in the service of agricultural development is not in contradiction with the simple way of life of most farmers in the developing world, says Mr Al Eter. He cited a number of readily available means, such as tele-centres, local radio, print materials and agricultural extension, that could be employed to provide farmers with access to this information in areas where no network infrastructure is available.
On-line training and an electronic newsletter are currently envisaged as the next additions to the services provided by AGRICENT. This would allow hands-on and almost cost-free training for users and provide a forum for user feedback for continuous improvement of AGRICENT's data and services.
The UAE-AGRICENT has evolved over the last two and half years from an ordinary electronic documentation centre into an interactive resource centre on a range of topics from plant and animal health to commodity information and trade issues.
Yet this is only an intermediate stage, marking the beginning of a five-year development plan. "The United Arab Emirates is well placed at the forefront of internet-based activities in the region," notes Perez-Trejo, adding that the process is laying the foundations for a dynamic information platform in Arabic-speaking countries.
From FAO's perspective, promoting the simultaneous development of Web systems in Arabic and English fulfils the mandate of the Organization to provide sophisticated technical applications and information to the widest possible audience.
Model of success
According to Perez-Trejo, the centre represents "a model of synergy between regional and international know-how that is opening up new opportunities for replication and expansion elsewhere."
FAO can use the lessons learned from its collaboration on AGRICENT as it works to improve information management in other regions.
"Think of the enormous momentum that could be generated by enlisting the capabilities of Australia or Japan for example, in collaboration with FAO, to set up agricultural information centres in Small Island Developing States and making a priority of connecting small developing economies to the global information society," says Perez-Trejo. "This is bound to level the playing field where family holdings and small cooperatives would effectively be linked to the global agricultural information network just as a multi-million-dollar agri-business is."
But, he acknowledges, we are still a long way from the objective of e-agriculture, which aims to marshal the potential of information technology to reduce hunger in the world and boost agricultural production.
"The process has a long way to go towards creating regional institutions to address specific problems with tailor-made solutions and hands-on experience in the all-embracing framework of e-agriculture," says Perez-Trejo. "But we are off to a good start."
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