Posted October 1998
prepared by the Communication for Development Group
Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division
Ensuring food security - the basic right of people to the food they need - is one of the greatest challenges facing the world community. The challenge is most critical in low-income, food-deficit countries. Of the 86 countries that are defined as low-income and food-deficient, 43 are in Africa.
Despite overall gains in food production and food security on a global scale, many countries and whole regions have failed to make progress in recent decades. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, produces less food per person today than it did three decades ago and the number of chronically undernourished people has increased dramatically.
The World Food Summit, held by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome in 1996, reaffirmed the right of everyone to safe and nutritious food. Heads of state and government committed themselves to eradicate hunger in all countries, with the immediate goal of reducing the number of undernourished people to half the present level by 2015. One of the greatest challenges will be to achieve this goal in Africa, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where chronic hunger is widespread.
African countries confront many significant political, economic, social and environmental constraints to increased food production. In spite of the constraints, however, Africans are making some progress in improving food security. Improvements in democracy and political stability in some countries have enhanced the prospects for renewed food production, distribution and purchase. Markets are freer and private investment is growing. Where there has been a restoration of peace and security, people have been able to resume farming and agricultural production has increased. In some countries, improved food production is allowing farmers to shift to cash crop development in association with private investment in processing and trading.
Many of Africa's agricultural and rural development problems have been related to misguided policies, weak institutions and a lack of well-trained human resources. A critical factor in meeting the challenge of ensuring food security in Africa is human resource development through knowledge building and information sharing. Communication technologies are central to this process. This article draws on experiences with a range of communication technologies in Africa - from traditional media to the Internet - to examine the important role of knowledge and information for food security.
Although globally population growth rates are slowing down, the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa are still expanding by about 3 percent a year, enough to double the number of people in one generation. In Africa, food production continues to grow more slowly than population, and, in contrast to every other region of the world, per capita food production has declined since the 1970s. It is estimated that 40 percent of the total population of SSA goes hungry, and that the figure will increase to 50 percent by the year 2000.
The most frequent cause of chronic hunger is poverty. In many countries, including those in SSA, there are examples of hungry people in food surplus areas - people who lack adequate income or assets to purchase or produce enough food for themselves and their families. Ironically, food insecurity is the most severe in rural Africa, where farming and herding are still the main means of livelihood. Ninety percent of the Africans living in poverty are rural dwellers.
In SSA, the number of people living in poverty increased from 184 million in 1985 to 216 million in 1990, and is projected to rise to 300 million by the year 2000. The number of African children under five years of age that are chronically hungry reflects the seriousness of the poverty problem. According to the 1996 Human Development Report, 22.5 million African children are malnourished.
There are a number of factors that contribute to African poverty. International factors such as unfavorable terms of trade and large external debt burdens have negatively affected economic performance. Domestic constraints have also played a role. Civil wars and political instability have seriously affected economic development, and have taken a direct toll on food production by driving farmers off their lands. There has also been inadequate public investment in agricultural research, training and infrastructure. The result is declining food production.
Africa's agricultural productivity is very low, averaging 300 to 500 kg/ha, as compared to 2.5 tons/ha in the United States, for example. To a large extent, low yields are a result of poverty. African farmers lack access to improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides as well as the knowledge and in-formation to use them effectively and efficiently. The application of fertilizers in SSA is the lowest in the world, at 11 kg/ha compared with the world average of 62 kg/ha. Moreover, much of Africa's food is wasted. It is estimated that African farmers lose 15 to 25 percent of their crop in the field and another 15 to 20 percent after harvest to pests. Again this can be attributed to poverty - farmers lack the means and skills to protect food crops in the fields and after harvest through proper processing and storage. Added to this are inappropriate land-use practices, which damage the natural resources on which agriculture and life itself depend.
Clearly, a major effort is needed to eliminate poverty and achieve food security in Africa - an effort that requires innovative strategies by Africans themselves and support by international de-velopment partners. This cannot be achieved without investing in human resources. This means putting people - their knowledge and information - at the centre of agricultural and rural de-velopment efforts.
The development of human resources is essential for food security in Africa. An educated and informed populace is fundamental to any policies and strategies to reduce poverty, excessive population growth, environmental degradation and other factors that are most often the direct causes of hunger. This is especially true in the low-income, food-deficit countries of Africa where there is an urgent need for human capacity development and for increased knowledge and information about food production.
Information, education and training allow farmers to make use of new farming knowledge and technologies. Research shows that both formal education and non-formal training have a substantial effect on agricultural productivity. A study in Nigeria in 1992 found that an increase in the average education of farmers by one year increased the value added to agricultural production by 24 percent. In Burkina Faso, a 1993 study found that crop yields were 25 to 30 percent higher for farmers who participated in training programmes than those who did not participate.
Unfortunately, farmers in SSA often lack the basic skills (e.g., literacy and numeracy) needed to learn about and apply improved agricultural practices. According to the 1995 UNESCO Education Report, 33 percent of men and 53 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are illiterate. Not surprisingly, school enrollment levels are low - in 1992, only 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females were enrolled in secondary schools and only 5 percent of males and 2 percent of females went on to study at the tertiary level.
A cost-benefit analysis carried out by the World Bank indicates that investment in the education of females has the highest rate of return of any possible investment in development. However, at present in Sub-Saharan Africa less than half of the girls 6 to 11 years of age is estimated to be in school, which means that more than half of the women in the region will never receive any formal education. This is a tremendous loss of human resources, especially for food security since it is estimated that women produce 60 to 80 percent of the basic foodstuffs in the region.
As farming becomes more and more complex and greater crop yields are required to feed more people, farmers' knowledge and information need to be constantly up-graded. It is especially critical that farmers know about environmentally sound farming practices so that the natural resource base is maintained for food production for future gener-ations. The staffs of the organizations that support farmers, such as government extension agencies, non-governmental organizations and agri-businesses, also need up-to-date knowledge and information about improved farming. The essential ingredients that farmers and the people who support them need for sustainable food security in Africa - agricultural knowledge and information - can best be provided by the effective use of communication technologies.
It is now conventional wisdom that "we live in the information age" - in a communication era characterized by a global expansion in the reach of mass media, by electronic information "super-highways" that span the globe. At the same time, there is concern that the gap between the information rich and the information poor is getting wider. Remote, rural communities are still difficult to reach - they lack communication infrastructure such as newspapers, telephones, televisions and radios. In rural areas of Africa, the challenge is not only to increase the quantity and accessibility of communication technologies but also to improve the relevance of the information to local development. The communication technologies and know-how exist; the challenge is to use them effectively for sustainable agricultural and rural development, and especially for improved food security.
Radio provides a good example of the technological advances in the communication field. The advent of cheap transistor radios has brought radio to remove corners of even the poorest countries. Video is another good example. A little more than a decade ago, video was a bulky and expensive medium. The basic equipment for shooting in black and white included a camera and recorder weighing about 30 kg and costing almost US$10 000. Now video can be filmed in vivid color using a semi-professional camcorder that weighs less than 3 kg and costs less than US$3 000.
Preparation of printed materials has also been revolutionized. With desktop publishing, one person using a personal computer and software packages can lay out text and graphics on pages which can then be printed on a laser-printer in camera-ready form for reproduction. Desktop publishing not only greatly reduces costs and production time, it also provides much greater access and versatility to the publication process.
Much more is now known about the interpersonal communication skills field workers need in order to function effectively as agents of change with rural people. In some settings, interpersonal communication based on traditional social groupings may be the best way to disseminate and exchange information. Farmers are accustomed to receiving information from other farmers, and their membership in particular social groups may facilitate the introduction of new agricultural technologies. Traditional and popular media, such as folk theatre, puppets, storytellers, songs and dance, traditional art and others, can be highly effective channels for farmer-to-farmer communication and for stimulating communities to take development actions.
What, then, are the specific contributions that communication technologies can make to agricultural knowledge and information for food security in Africa? The following sections address this question for traditional folk media, rural radio, video and the Internet.
Modern media may not only fail to reach many remote rural areas, but lack cultural credibility when they are available. Receptivity to outside messages can be enhanced by the use of traditional folk media that are often an integral part of rural life and that use the visual and oral expressions that are commonly understood by villagers.
Traditional folk media are cultural resources that accumulate indigenous knowledge, experiences and expressions passed down from generation to generation. Woven into proverbs and poems, songs and dances, puppet plays and stories, rhythms and beats, they are embedded with a strong sense of cultural identity which can be a potent force for development. In many cases, these media are the traditional conduits of indigenous knowledge, experience and culture. Creative use of these cultural resources in com-munties where they are popular and well entrenched can be a subtle and effective way of introducing development ideas and messages.
The use of traditional folk media in development is not new. For many years they have attracted the attention of communication professionals as an alternative or a complement to modern mass media. Traditional media have been used in family planning campaigns, in health care programmes, in envron-mental protection projects, and in adult literacy programmes, among others.
Development communicators have used traditional media to help mothers learn to prepare more nutritional food for their children, to influence attitudes towards family size and to introduce new practices to farmers. Traditional folk media offer an effective means to integrate local agricultural knowledge with new scientific knowledge from outside sources.
Some of the advantages of traditional folk media are that they do not require large capital investments and there is not a dependence on expensive communication technologies that are liable to break down. Traditional media can be used "live", and are likely to have the greatest impact when audience members can interact with the performers and artists and even parti-cipate. Alternatively, they can be coupled with other media such as radio and television.
Using traditional folk media requires skill in the crafting of development messages into the fabric of the media. It is best done through close collaboration between development workers and folk media artists and performers.
Rural radio has a rich history. The first rural radio programmes in Africa appeared in the late 1960s, growing out of educational radio efforts in Europe, Canada and the USA. One of the most significant contributors to the evolution of rural radio was the Radio Forum movement in Canada from the 1940s to the 1960s. Listening groups gathered around a radio receiver at a given time to listen to a programme on specific agricultural topics. At the end of the programme, the group discussed what they had just heard and sent their comments and questions back to the radio producers. At its height, the Radio Forum involved 1 600 groups across Canada with a total audience of 30 000 listeners.
UNESCO adapted lessons from the Canadian experience for use in India in the 1950s. In subsequent years, the use of radio as a development tool was promoted in various regions of the world, including Africa. Collective listening groups, so-called "radio clubs", were organized in various African countries, such as the Association des Radios Clubs du Niger, founded in 1962
From these early efforts, a methodology for rural radio evolved which was based initially on mixed programming (combining agriculture, health, oral tradition, music, and folk tales) and subsequently developed into a more interactive use of the medium. Today, it is widely recog-nized that rural radio programmes are most effective when produced with audience participation, in local languages and taking into account cultural traditions. Community participation is a fundamental characteristic of rural radio - live public shows, village debates and participation in the actual management of the radio station are just a few examples. This approach empowers rural people to participate in the dialogue and decision-making processes essential for them to control their own economic, social and cultural environment and play an active part in development activities.
Rural radio can fulfill a number of versatile functions. It is:
In Africa, radio is one of the most widespread and popular tools of communication. It is, therefore, a very appropriate communication technology to address food security, poverty reduction, environmental protection and a host of other areas of concern to rural Africans. Rural radio often goes beyond agricultural issues to address a wide range of related social, educational, health and cultural issues. It is excellent for motivating farmers and for drawing their attention to new agricultural production ideas and techniques. It is inexpensive, has wide coverage and is readily available, even to very remote rural populations. Programme production is relatively simple and local stations can easily create their own content.
In recent years some important changes have taken place in radio in Africa. Once a top-down medium for delivery of messages, it is now becoming more interactive, with opportunities for dialogue, exchange of views and debate. Centralized radio, based in the capital or in the major urban centres, is becoming decentralized with many regional and local stations. Government controlled radio is being joined by independent, private radio stations. Deregulation and decentralization, the ending of state monopolies and the emergence of new commercial broadcasters are all creating a more positive context for rural radio - one which encourages closer and better interactive communication with African communities and which empowers rural people to actively use this important tool for their own development.
Video is an effective communication tool to increase awareness about specific development problems and stimulate local discussion of possible solutions. It has become relatively cheap and easy to use. In the last decade, the cost of video equipment has decreased from about US$10 000 to 3 000 and the weight has dropped from 30 to 3 kg.
With some basic training, rural people can prepare video presentations about community development concerns in local languages. Editing can be done in the camera and through immediate playback video production results can be quickly viewed. Presentations can even be shown in areas without electricity using battery-powered monitors.
Initially, many development planners dismissed video as too "high-tech" and as an "inappropriate technology" for working with rural communities. Experience has shown otherwise. In many development settings, small- format video, in the form of consumer grade video cameras and portable monitors, has enabled rural dwellers to share their experiences with one another across vast distances; access up-to-date knowledge prepared by agricultural technicians; and speak directly to otherwise unapproachable decisions makers.
Perhaps the most significant, but frequently misunderstood, aspect of participatory video is that for the local people involved it is the process of communication that is vastly more important than the video product that is created. Instead of being used as a one-way broadcast medium, video can be used as a communication process tool which enables rural people to address their information and knowledge needs to achieve their development objectives.
In Africa, FAO is applying participatory video to rural and agricultural development based on experiences that have been successful in Latin America using a methodology called "rural audiovisual pedagogy". This methodology uses participatory video as a communication tool for mediating between rural people's needs and the possible sources of information and expertise to respond to those needs. This is achieved through the production and use, with local communities, of video documentaries and training presentations.
Used in this way, video can empower rural residents to actively partici-pate in development by articulating their ideas and taking part in decisions; by recognizing the value of the skills they already possess while gaining new knowledge; and by planning and carrying out local development activi-ties. Experience has shown that rural people who have benefited from participatory video training are more apt to address their own development problems, use newly acquired skills and knowledge, and act as development agents for neighbouring communities
Soon, new "nodes" or routes were added to connect researchers located at universities and colleges. A large community of users beyond the military began to use the network, which became in-creasingly personalized since computers could "talk" with each other through electronic mail. This popular utilization of the network foreshadowed what the Internet would become - an instrument of connectivity not just of machines, but also of people.
Today, the Internet is a global "peoples' network" for communicating and sharing information. It consists of two powerful tools - e-mail and the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW is the part of the Internet where a vast global information resource, or library, has emerged in recent years. Estimates range from 50 to 100 million current Internet users, and its use is growing rapidly. In some developing countries, such as Thailand, Internet use is growing at a rate of close to 1 000 per cent per year. If current trends continue, it is estimated that over 100 million computers will be linked to the Internet by the year 2000, any one of which might connect one person or thousands of individuals.
From its early origins, the Internet has become a vast and growing global network that people use to converse, debate, meet, teach, learn, buy and sell, and share virtually every type of information imaginable.
The success of the Internet in developed countries strongly suggests that it has great potential for development purposes. Like many communication technologies before it, the Internet enables rural communities to receive information and assistance from outside development organizations. However, unlike such mass media, the Internet is the first medium that allows every user to be a sender, receiver, narrowcaster and broadcaster. As such, the Internet offers opportunities for two-way and horizontal communication and for opening up new, non-traditional communication channels for rural communities and development organizations. Most importantly, it can support bottom-up articulation of development needs and perceptions. Employing the Internet for rural development can potentially:
The quote on page 16 reflects the view of "cyberspace optimists" who believe that the Internet and other new information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help "leapfrog" developing countries - that is, allow them to jump generations of technological change, moving quickly from agrarian societies to information societies.
There are undoubtedly good reasons for the widespread belief that the Internet is a potent social and economic force. However, many observers caution that the new "information marketplace" will increase the gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people. While there is little doubt that the Internet is spreading rapidly in many developing countries, including those in Africa, it is also true that many developing countries lack the basic telecommunication infrastructure required for widespread Internet access.
This is illustrated by the average "teledensity" (main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) in developing countries as compared to the world average of about 11 per 100 persons. For example, the present teledensity in China is 1.7 per 100 persons, in Pakistan it is 2 and in India it is 0.8. Teledensity in South Africa is 9.5, which is one of the highest figures in Africa. In many rural areas the figure is lower than 0.1, that is one telephone for every for every 1 000 persons. The situation must also take into account the various indicators of information prosperity and poverty - ICT policy frameworks and infrastructure, computer hardware and software, ICT literacy (i.e., number of people trained to use information technologies) and relative costs of purchasing ICTs and using them.
One approach that is being explored by international and national development organizations for providing rural access to modern information and communication technologies is through "telecentres". These are shared information and communication facilities in isolated rural communities where people do not have the skills to use modern ICTs or cannot afford to use them.
Telecentres are relatively recent phenomena. The first ones appeared in Europe in the 1980s, where the idea spread quite rapidly. More recently, they have been established in some developing countries, for example in rural towns in Brazil where plans are to establish several hundred in the next few years. Telecentres can provide access to telephone and fax services, e-mail, Internet and electronic networks, data- bases and libraries. They can also link the Internet to local media such as radio and television and thus make telecentre information accessible to wider audiences.
Telecentres should not be seen as just information technology centres. They can also facilitate local sharing of information and help create common, local development visions. Telecentres are not only facilities for single-point access to external information services (e.g., government marketing and price information) or to global information through the WWW, but are also facilities for organizing virtual village-to-village meetings and tele-training events.
It is important to realize that provision of ICTs should not be a goal in itself. Instead, the goal should be the introduction of telecentre facilities in an integrated effort to support community de-velopment. Telecentre pilot projects should focus on the adaptation of applications and content to the local context so that they are relevant to a particular area of development activity (e.g., medicine, education, agriculture) and the training of local telecentre support staff and users. For example, the agricultural and rural development applications of telecentres for improved food security should support activities such as:
Significant sums of money are being invested by governments, donors, development organizations and the commercial private sector to deploy the new information and communication technologies in Africa. In the rush to "wire" countries, it is important to recognize that the effective application of the Internet to rural and agricultural development requires an approach that focuses on enhancing information and knowledge sharing, both vertically and horizontally. If used effectively, the new ICTs can improve communication among rural communities and agricultural organizations that support them with research, extension and training for improved food production. The basis of such an approach is human resource development and organizational capacity building for local use and management of Internet tools and resources.
Communication can facilitate agricultural development by giving a voice to those involved (rural people, development workers, researchers, input suppliers, local authorities and national decision makers); fostering acceptance of agricultural development policies and programmes; mobilizing people for participation and action; conveying information for education and training; and helping to disseminate new technologies.
Communication media and techniques can help overcome barriers of liter-acy, language, cultural differences and physical isolation. They are powerful tools to inform and educate people about new agricultural ideas and technical innovations for improved food production.
Effectively using communication to improve food security in Africa first requires an understanding of the knowledge and information needs of farmers and rural people and then the application of appropriate communication strategies, media and messages. Governments require advice on communication as part of rural development policy and help in establishing national communication systems which can support food production initiatives. Extension agents and other development workers need training in com- munication skills, methodologies and media uses. Field-based research is essential for identifying innovative, successful and cost-effective communication approaches for specific audiences, tasks and messages.
For example, there are many useful lessons to be learned from the use of traditional folk media for health education, rural radio for community involvement and to reach remote areas, multimedia modules for farmer training, video for making villagers' needs "visible" to development planners, and the Internet for linking researchers, extension agents, educators and producer groups with each other and with global information sources.
There is a wide range of media available and currently used in com-munication for development in Africa. Media, of course, differ with respect to forms of symbolic representation (text, visuals audio, etc.), direction of interaction (one-way one-to-one, two-way one-to-one, two-way many-to-many), and a host of other factors such as cost, availability and the skills required to use them (literacy, computer skills, etc.). There is strong evidence that no one medium is inherently better than another and that a mix of media may often be more effective and efficient than any single medium.
There are no simple prescriptions for media selection or doing com- munication for development well. However, the time-tested adage "know your audience" is a useful starting place. This means beginning with an understanding of the intended audience, listening and observing, before selecting media or preparing messages. Only an audience participation-based approach to communication will assure that the messages in the media channels are responsive to the needs of farmers and rural people.
Today, a computer-based communication network, the Internet, spans most of the globe and is rapidly extending into remote areas. Different media may be suitable for different uses in different parts of a particular com- munication network. Global media such as the Internet may be effective for communicating across the world while other media may be better suited for extending information to specific audiences. For example, electronic-mail can improve dialogue among agricultural researchers and the results of their experiments can be shared globally via the Internet. These results can also be simultaneously available to agricultural extension offices where they can be shared directly with some groups of farmers or "re-packaged" to communicate to more distant, perhaps less literate groups of farmers through other communication channels.
Rural telecentres can serve as information "depots" or "hubs" that place regional, national and international information at the fingertips of agricultural development workers - information on markets, weather, crop and livestock production, natural resource protection. Exchanging information with farmers and villagers may often still be best done by more conventional or traditional methods of information dissemination, but rural telecentres can be a valuable information hub at the centre of a communication network. In Africa, agricultural colleges, rural schools, experiment stations, extension offices, non-governmental organizations and in some places farmer organizations offer a ready-made institutional and human network for electronic connectivity.
It is through the use of a variety of media and their integration with local communication networks that more people throughout Africa can be heard and can be reached. Using communication media mixes, rural Africans can be brought into a dialogue about the things that affect their livelihoods and be part of a process of knowledge and information sharing for improved food security. In choosing media for development tasks, it is important to pay attention to the different media arrangements that can be utilized (public/private ownership, individual or group use) in order to help close rather than widen the gap between information "haves" and information "have-nots".
Decisions about the new ICTs should be tempered by a careful analysis of the "information gap effect". The potential of recent information and communication innovations such as the Internet are attractive, but traditional folk media, rural radio and video have important roles to play in closing knowledge and information gaps. Enthusiasm for the new communication technologies should be balanced with an awareness that their use may not be "leveling the playing field", but instead helping those who already have the best access to information to get more.
Translating the potential of ICTs to current practice is still a future reali-ty for rural regions of many African countries. Electronic connectivity usually covers only the major cities, rarely reaching the isolated rural areas where many farmers live. Rural electronic connectivity (what some people call the "last mile" and others the "first mile" of connectivity) is still a distant reality for many villagers.
Communication on its own leads nowhere. It must be part of, and a partner in, a process of sustainable development. At its core, communication is about the human factor in development. It is most useful when it starts by listening to what people already know, what they aspire to become, what they perceive is possible and what they can productively sustain.
A decisive role can be played by communication in promoting human development in today's climate of social and economic change. As societies move towards greater democracy, decentralization and market economies, and as new technologies become more widely available, conditions are improving for people to direct their own courses of change. Communication is vital for stimulating their awareness and participation and for improving their knowledge and capabilities. Communication is also essential for helping government staff and local authorities enter into a development process with rural people as a genuine expression of a common cause and future.
Communication skills and technologies are central to these tasks and challenges. Whether villages in Africa are connected to the outside world through modern telecommunications, learn about health care through folk proverbs and songs or listen to radio broadcasts about environmental damage caused by bushfires, the processes are the same - people communicating and learning for improved food security and sustainable development.