Communication for development Knowledge

Posted November 2000

The role of information and communication technologies in rural development and food security

Information and Communication Technologies for rural development and food security:
Lessons from field experiences in developing countries

By Hilda Munyua
CAB International, Africa Regional Centre

Workshop papers:


Developing country governments are increasingly aware that they have a major responsibility for rural development and food security, but lack the capacity and solutions to meet the challenge. In 1996, the world’s heads of state meeting in Rome committed their countries to eradicating hunger and reducing the number of undernourished people by 50% by the year 2015 (FAO 1998). While on the one hand the agricultural yields in developing countries continue to decline, despite technological innovations, their populations continue to expand beyond food production capacities. This poses a great challenge for developing countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where it has been estimated that 50% of the total population would go hungry by the year 2000 (FAO 1998:2). Policy- and decision-makers thus have to identify possible and appropriate solutions that ensure rural development and food security.

Food security can only be achieved "when all people at all times have access to sufficient food for a healthy and productive life, and has three main components: food availability, food access, and food utilisation" (Haddad 1997). This entails creating effective and efficient agricultural systems that supply food and foster utilisation of natural resources in a sustainable manner. Although "agriculture is the principal engine of growth in many low-income developing countries, where it accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all employment" (CGIAR 1995), food security should also be linked to environmental, social, cultural, political and institutional aspects of society (Forno 1999).

Rural people constitute the greater part of the population of developing countries and often lack access to basic needs such as water, food, education, health care, sanitation and security, leading to low life expectancy and high infant mortality. These conditions, considered harsh by the majority of the rural population, result in their migration into urban areas, often in search of formal employment, as the only option for survival. The urban slum populations in which they find themselves are often not food secure either. Finding solutions calls for revolutions, including the biological revolution, which is one intervention that has been identified as having the potential to meet the increased food demands and to contribute to alleviating food insecurity problems (McCalla and Brown 1999:4). Although this whole area is still controversial, some of its techniques are not controversial and developing countries should reap the benefits of biotechnology.

The information revolution is another intervention with the potential to ensure that knowledge and information on important technologies, methods and practices are put in the right hands. The relevance of this revolution is supported by Balit (1996) who pointed out that the least expensive input for rural development is knowledge. Knowledge and information are basic ingredients of food security and are essential for facilitating rural development and bringing about social and economic change. According to Albert Waterson, as quoted by Cohen (1987:23), the purpose of rural development is "to improve the standard of living of the rural population – is multi-sectoral including agriculture, industry, and social facilities". Rural communities require information inter alia on supply of inputs, new technologies, early warning systems (drought, pests, diseases), credit, market prices and their competitors. The success of the Green Revolution in Asia and the Near East indicates that giving rural communities access to knowledge, technology and services will contribute to expanding and energising agriculture.

Traditional media and new ICTs have played a major role in diffusing information to rural communities, and have much more potential. There is need to connect rural communities, research and extension networks and provide access to the much needed knowledge, technology and services (Forno 1999). Studies on information systems serving rural communities have focused on specific sectors such as agriculture or health, instead of covering the rural community needs in a holistic manner. Rural information systems must involve rural communities and local content must be of prime importance (Mchombu 1993). Traditional media have been used very successfully in developing countries, and rural radio in particular has played a major role in delivering agricultural messages. Print, video, television, films, slides, pictures, drama, dance, folklore, group discussions, meetings, exhibitions and demonstrations have also been used to speed up the flow of information (Munyua 2000). New ICTs, however, have the potential of getting vast amounts of information to rural populations in a more timely, comprehensive and cost-effective manner, and could be used together with traditional media.

Potential of new ICTs for rural development

While the term ‘ICTs’ can be interpreted as including a wide range of media, ‘new ICTs’ is used to denote "the use of computers and communication systems between computers" (CTA 1999:4). These new ICTs are becoming more accessible, and users can obtain information from various sources, and one computer could meet the needs of a large rural community. A CTA seminar on "The role of information for rural development in ACP countries" concluded that "these modern technologies offer new and multiple perspectives, such as faster and better-focused access to information" (CTA 1998:13). Electronic mail is the most commonly used new ICT and has caused a cultural revolution in the way individuals and organisations interact, in terms of time, cost and distance. The second most significant use of new ICTs is the World Wide Web, which enables people to access information on millions of other computers.

Although the Internet is not a panacea for food security and rural development problems, it can open new communication channels that bring new knowledge and information resources to rural communities (Bie 1996). Traditional communication channels have been used successfully but these have been monologic and have not allowed for much interaction with users. Radio for example has been very effective for disseminating information to all types of audiences, but broadcasting times are sometimes not appropriate for most people. But radio could be linked to the Internet, and a few initiatives have been started on this concept, such as the project Internet Radio in Sri Lanka ( This enables users to access programmes on the web at a convenient time, and send feedback through e-mail or chat. Broadcasters could then disseminate the latest information promptly. Some examples of areas where ICTs could play a catalytic role in developing rural areas include:

Innovative application of ICTs in rural areas

There are examples of initiatives in several developing countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Chile, India, Mauritius, Mexico, Peru, South Africa and Uganda) supported by FAO, ITU, IDRC, IFAD, UNESCO, DFID, British Council, GTZ and others.

Examples from Latin America and the Caribbean

Examples from Africa

Examples from Asia

ICTS for improving linkages

Weak linkages between researchers, frontline workers and farmers have been a major constraint that has resulted in research findings not being applied by poor rural farmers. ICTs can improve and strengthen these linkages and ensure knowledge and information, which are essential for improving food security are communicated to all stakeholders.

Constraints in the establishment and management of community-based ICT projects

Some general problems that have been experienced in a number of ICT-based rural projects and initiatives include:

Role of FAO in ensuring appropriate use of ICTs

FAO is an international and membership organisation with intergovernmental status. It is recognised as one of the leading agencies in alleviating poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development, improved nutrition and the pursuit of food security. This means that FAO has the potential to assist governments of developing member countries to attain food security. Rural people will, in turn, themselves then have to adopt new technologies. FAO could assist developing countries to harness the benefits of ICTs to facilitate sharing and exchanging of relevant knowledge and information. FAO can, however, not achieve this on its own and international, regional, national and local partners will need to work together to ensure that rural communities participate in the ICT revolution. Some areas where FAO could play a role include:

Conclusion and the way forward

It has been stated that "achieving an integrated rural Internet development approach in a given nation or region requires the collaborative participation of agencies, organisations and government services" (Richardson 1997:15). The Strategy for Co-operation would thus be to work through international co-operation to harness synergies of the respective partners. FAO could, therefore, forge alliances and coalitions with other international, regional, national, donor, multilateral and development agencies, public and non-public institutions and rural groups. The partnership could then work jointly in planning and implementing initiatives that seek to harness ICTs for food security and rural development. The partners could include IDRC, CABI, UNDP, USAID, IFAD, CTA, World Bank, DfID, IICD, British Council, GTZ, national governments, regional organisations, private sector, NGOs, farmer associations and specialised ICT bodies such as ITU and telephone companies.

Following a recommendation from one of its seminars that a ‘technology watch’ be established to track the evolution of ICTs, CTA has established an electronic "Observatory" with experts from ACP countries and Europe, that has the task of informing the agricultural community on appropriate ICTs (CTA 1998:13). Similarly, ITU has created a Global Case Library of reports on on-going projects using ICTs, planned projects using satellite and wireless technologies and examples of equipment adapted for use in remote disadvantaged rural environments (ITU, html). FAO could work with these groups and others, to build on the existing body of knowledge on ICTs, provide wider resource bases, increase economies of scale and put agricultural growth on centerstage.

Multipurpose community telecentres could play a key role in the "information renaissance" in developing countries and ensure universal access. Locations for telecentres must be carefully selected, and should take into consideration the "level of potential demand for communication and information services from a large number and wide range of users", its proximity to other organisations and institutions, infrastructural considerations and socio-cultural issues (Anderson et al 1999). The information systems established should be multi-sectoral (agricultural research, extension, training and education, and health) and use a mix of appropriate traditional media and new ICTs depending on preferences of the users. All relevant stakeholders should facilitate the evolution of appropriate ICT policies in developing countries and work towards a common goal of ensuring rural development and food security. Where the infrastructure is not yet developed, the Internet could be used from a central point (telecentre) for online broadcasting and for exchanging relevant information from developing countries. The telecentres will also provide a stage for rural communities to address their training and development needs and vision (Anderson et al 1999).

Local content and expert systems developed in different countries could also be shared through an electronic agricultural network over the Internet.

New initiatives should avoid fragmentation and duplication of costly infrastructure against the challenge of an ever-diminishing resource base and projects developed should respond to needs of small scale farmers and entrepreneurs. There should also be more consultation and active involvement of private sector and civil society organisations that produce and use knowledge and information.

Food security attainment is, however, unlikely to be realised by provision of information alone and developing country governments must invest much more in impoverished rural areas where the greater population lies. "Governments are much better placed to formulate overall objectives and priorities, and to articulate a coherent strategy at the national level" (CTA 1999), as they have the machinery to bring about food security and rural development through a wide range of mechanisms. Organisations advocating for the use and application of ICTs for information sharing and exchange must therefore work closely with developing country governments.


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