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 sustainable livelihoods

Preliminary study, April to November 1999

By Clare O'Farrell and Patricia Norrish
Agricultural Extension and Rural Development Department (AERDD)
The University of Reading
The Agriculture Building, Earley Gate, Whiteknights Road, Reading, UK RG6 6AL
Andrew Scott
Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG)
Schumacher Centre for Technology Development
Burton Hall, Bourton On Dunsmore, Warwickshire, UK CV23 9QZ

This project was funded by the Department for International Development through the Economic and Social Research Unit (ESCOR).
The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department for International Development.

Workshop papers:

This briefing document outlines the finding from a desk study on new communication technologies and existing information systems of small scale-farmers and entrepreneurs in rural communities. The project looked at:


Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are rapidly consolidating global communication networks and international trade with implications for people in developing countries. Despite this there is a worrying lack of empirical evidence or analysis of the actual experiences and effects of ICTs upon poor people's economic and social livelihoods. The constraints of existing information systems on poor women and men and their intersection with ICTs are also little understood in relation to livelihoods.

ICTs are technologies offering new ways for communicating and exchanging information and knowledge. They can be used to enable, strengthen or replace existing information systems and networks. The challenge for those working in ICTs is to define the particular roles that information can be expected to play and where ICTs might be most effectively applied but equally to clarify and be honest about what they cannot do.

Policy recommendations

  • Examples of good practice approaches to ICT projects are beginning to come thorough though failure is still being downplayed and accurate costing are rarely available. More rigorous monitoring and evaluation of projects is required. However, organisations need support in doing this.
  • There should be a shift from technology driven projects to consider the wider systemic economic, social and communication needs of communities.
  • Greater understanding of existing information systems - how information is gathered, stored, shared, concretised and evaluated amongst rural stakeholders - will aid the appropriate application of ICTs.
  • Accommodating all sectors of society (particularly rural communities, women and the disabled) in the transition from traditional through to new learning societies is an urgent issue for policy makers.
  • Strategies should be developed for ICTs that specifically target women and young girls.
  • Private sector ICT providers should be encouraged to provide services to rural areas.
  • Donors should work in the short term to service the ICT needs of those unable to pay or operating outside monetary economies.

ICTs in Development

There needs to be a move from looking at technology and asking, "What can we do with this?" to looking at peoples needs and asking, "Which technology might help here?"
- P. Norrish, 1998, FAO

The impacts and effects of new ICTs on development are not clear and it will take more time for the economic and social effects of ICT interventions to be evaluated. Yet, it is precisely for this reason, before it has entered the common arena, that we should seek to understand and monitor its effects.

Previous approaches to communication for development have exposed the failure of top-down, one-way, non-consultative, technology driven approaches to development communication. There are many examples of technology gathering dust in cupboards or being sold by communities to purchase goods they deemed more appropriate to their needs. The literature on instances of theft or of equipment being re-appropriated for other means does not reflect the personal experiences shared amongst practitioners. Finally, projects have not taken into account the needs of marginalised groups and in particular technology-transfer projects in all their forms have historically lacked gender sensitivity (Appleton, 1995).

Benefits of new ICTs

There is a vast literature on the benefits and potentials of new ICTs as tools for enhancing peoples daily lives whether by increasing access to information relevant to their economic livelihood, better access to other information sources; healthcare, transport, distance learning or the strengthening of kinship relations.

It has been a much harder task to uncover empirical evidence to substantiate these claims.

General findings regarding the literature

  • Literature is overwhelmingly promotional in nature and presents issues of validity when researching over the internet.
  • Paucity of baseline and evaluation studies to date.
  • Frameworks for evaluating ICT projects only now emerging (Heeks 1999, Gomez et al, 1999)
  • Emphasis on Telecentre projects and an imbalance of literature concerning Africa, particularly South Africa.


Some of the constraints to ICTs in rural areas are surmountable others require a shift in both human and organisational communication and working patterns which may take longer to change. ICTs rely on physical infrastructures (electricity, telecommunications) and even when such infrastructures are in place, difficulties arise when they are poorly maintained or too costly to use. ICTs are dependent on national policy and regulation for telecommunications and broadcasting licences. They require initial capital investment for hardware and software. They also are dependent on the skills and capacity necessary to use, manage and maintain the technology effectively. Matching the most appropriate communications technology with people's needs and capabilities is a crucial task for ICT providers.

Aside from the telephone, the majority of information exchanged via ICTs, whether in text format or broadcast orally, takes place in the languages of developed countries. Steps must be taken to address the needs of other languages and cultures through longer-term vision to make all ICTs accessible to all people. This will involve significant investment and support for local content (in broadcasting and the internet) and software design.

Macro issues: Telecommunications

The benefits from ICTs and the adverse effects that might ensue from not accessing them cannot be embraced without adequate telecommunications infrastructures. Those developing countries which have traditionally used international call revenues to support non-telecom sectors will require a complete overhaul of the current information and communication policies and national infrastructures.

The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) have placed appropriate ICT policies as a priority with the formation of the African Information Society. The subsequent national information and communication infrastructure (NICI) strategy papers argue "Information and Communication technologies can no longer be seen as a luxury for the elite but as an absolute necessity for the masses." (ECA1999:02).

Profitable rural telecoms services?

Evidence from a range of developing countries including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Africa suggest basic telecommunication services can be provided to rural and underserved urban communities on a commercially viable basis through a range of business models, such as privately owned phone shop franchises, or individual cellphone subscriptions (Barton and Bear 1999).

Countries such as Ghana, The Philippines, and South Africa have embarked on liberalisation and may provide models for other nations. In the Philippines liberalisation of the telecommunication sector during the past 5 years saw the sector shift from a monopoly to providing multiple land based, international and cellphone licences. Currently there are over 75 operators providing local exchange traffic and over 130 Internet Service providers with more licences planned.

Universal service obligations have mandated that licensees, particularly in the growth markets such as international traffic and cellphone networks, provide landlines to address rural and underserved communities. A similar strategy was adopted in South Africa, however early research shows that universal service obligations are not being upheld and that there were no contingency plans or penalties administered against the operators (Benjamin 1999). Appropriate models for liberalisation / privatisation need to be designed from within developing countries also taking account of the lessons learned from other nations restructuring programmes.


Radio can reach communities at the very end of the development road - people who live in areas with no phones or electricity. Radio reaches people who can't read or write. Even in very poor communities, radio penetration is vast. There are more than 800 million radios in developing countries. An average of one in ten people has radios.
- Farm Radio Network.

There is a large unmet demand for radio broadcasting. Deregulation of some broadcasting policies in Africa and Asia has granted licences to rural radio stations however they generally suffer from lack of investment, low quality programming and lack of trained staff. Licences (commercial or non-profit) are difficult to obtain in some countries. Commercial stations rely on advertising revenue, which is easier to obtain for urban areas where it is perceived the listener has a higher spending power. Non-profit radio services urgently require training in to improve programming quality.

Radio can have relatively inexpensive running costs, which should be emphasised more. Technological development such a FM wavelength and new digital recording and its convergence with the Internet serve to reduce broadcasting costs further.

Pulsar news Service, Ecuador

Internet can be an additional vehicle for radio both for exchanging audio files and for broadcasting online. In Ecuador, demand for Internet was stimulated by a radio news service in the local language of Quechua. This service acted as a catalyst to encouraged radio stations to buy computers and become Internet subscribers. Dispersed rural radio stations now receive and exchange their own news items whilst access to the wider internet has opened up networks with broadcasters world-wide (Girard 1998).

Radio listeners in Bangladesh

Audience research in Bangladesh found that only 23% of males and 21% of females own working radios however, a staggering 71% of males and 44% of females surveyed have regular access to radio broadcasts (WrenMedia 1999).

Rural communities (including small-scale producers and SMEs) generate, gather and decipher information from a multitude of locally contextualised sources much of which is exchanged orally through face to face communication with credible interlocutors (Fouche 1999, Norrish 1999, FAO 1997). Men, women, old and young often access different information systems, with the poor and women having the least access yet greatest need.

Given the low levels of literacy (reading and writing) let alone computer literacy in many developing countries, the opportunities presented by new digital information systems are a long way from reaching the hands and eyes of the majority. In South Africa, an estimated 45% of the population are illiterate resulting in a limited, parochial network of information exchange. 'This could have serious implications for a web based information system which operates on a different principle.' (Fouche 1999:29).

Oral versus Virtual societies

In oral cultures, the collective memory and importance placed on the elders to store information creates a strong system for information flow (Slim & Thompson 1993). There is a need for mediation between the traditional and emerging information systems when considering the socio-cultural and economic leap that will be required for societies, accustomed to receiving information orally from a known and trusted source, to new digital, text based information from virtual, and virtually anonymous, sources. In an evaluation of a community based telecentre Baron (1999) notes "We found difficulties in moving from the logic of perceiving the world based on oral tradition and experience and the physical proximity of objects, places and persons, to a logic in which the world is converted into texts, files and windows that are closer to the idea of a virtual reality" (Baron 1999:42).

Cultural resistance to high end technology

Robinson (1999) writing on the reasons for a telecentre project failing in Mexico cites amongst political and infrastructural reasons, the fact that the telecentres presented an alternative information source to the local elders. The telecentre represented a shift from traditional knowledge practices towards a new model of 'The Learning Society'. This effectively by-passed their position as knowledge brokers within the village and was compounded by the fact that they had not been involved in the project design nor demonstrated the potential usefulness of the technology for their own use. When confronted with a competitive information source, one that they had not yet mastered, the natural reaction was to discourage and discredit the information.

Creating female role models

Within the same project Robinson believes that the positioning of ICTs access within libraries staffed by women provides an encouraging role model for girls, who had generally less exposure to computer technology, than boys of the same area. If ICTs are to develop there needs to be both male and female, old and young, ICT champions providing role models for others.

Small-scale farmers

Changes in the pattern of agricultural production for many developing countries (brought about globalisation and structural adjustment programmes), whilst benefiting larger commercial farmers, has accelerated insecurity for many small-scale farmers. Farmers require access to agricultural information but they also need information on finance and credit. Small-scale and subsistence farmers have the least access to information and resources for improving productivity. Agricultural extension systems in most developing countries are under funded and have had mixed effects. Much extension information has been found to be out of date, irrelevant and not applicable to farmers needs (Garthforth & Mulhall 1999, Norrish & Lawrence 1999).

The information systems of small scale, rural farmers is likely to be weighted in favour of receiving outsider, indirect information via a more localised, direct means. There is clearly a role for locally trusted intermediaries to transform and disseminate information into existing information networks (Heeks 1998).

Small-Scale Enterprises (SMEs)

SMEs face barriers to growth from poor or inadequate information regarding the wider market environment (pricing, demand, trends) and with poor communications between suppliers and markets (Grimard 1998). The greatest constraints to businesses generally, whether ICTs were in use or not, are; access to capital for equipment or raw material; a shortage of adequately skilled personnel and; a lack of business management expertise or business model (Barton & Bear 1999). Lack of financial capital to provide the security necessary for innovation was also a common impediment to growth. Research suggests that strengthening local capacities is crucial for enabling small-scale enterprises to carry out necessary administration and business forecasting and to be able act upon the new information delivered over ICTs. In Botswana, China and Ghana, telephone services were found to be the most popular initial investment for businesses (Duncombe 1999, Ke & Zang 1999, Bertolini 1999). SMEs demand for basic telecommunication services (the telephone and fax) is growing but awareness of, and demand for, higher end services such as email and internet are low (Barton & Bear 1999). In many countries the prohibitively high cost of internet subscriptions, long distance calls and the paucity of relevant business content, mean in the short term, the benefits of information delivery systems and networks will not be exploited by SMEs.

Women ICT entrepreneurs

ICTs can be new enterprises themselves. Micro credit loans enable women in Bangladesh to earn an income from providing a village phone service. Placing the phones with women enables other Muslim women to interact and use the phoneshops. Within the village, local farmers can obtain accurate market prices for their produce (Bayes et al.1999).

Investment in telecommunications services provides the necessary impetus for information delivery services specifically targeting SMEs. SMEs require specialised information on their niche markets yet, the mechanisms for providing information to SMEs are not yet clear. 'It is unlikely that the private sector will develop appropriate information services for micro and small enterprises in the short term because market for information services for larger businesses is growing fast and is, arguably, easier to supply' (Chua 1999:24). Donors can play a role in 'kick starting' information delivery systems where the private sector is not likely to venture in the short term.


Although examples of good practice approaches to ICT projects are beginning to come thorough, failure is still being downplayed and accurate costings are rarely available. More rigorous monitoring and evaluation of projects especially when donor funded are required. However, there is still too few frameworks or guidelines for measuring impact. Organisations require working methodologies and support to carry out evaluation studies.

Increased access to information for SMEs can give them greater control over supply and delivery chains and wider access to markets thus overcoming barriers to economic development. However, ICTs cannot achieve this in isolation, other factors such as access to capital, local capacities, business management and marketing skills are determining factors for successful SMEs. The role of trusted intermediaries to disseminate locally relevant information in appropriate media formats is also considered to be crucial.

The introduction of new information systems, particularly those that are text based and delivered via new communication technologies may conflict with existing information sources and communication channels. The way in which they are incorporated into existing information systems is a determining factor in their success or failure. This means a shift from technology driven projects to those in which the wider systemic economic, social and communication needs of communities are central. A greater understanding of existing information systems to ascertain how information is gathered, stored, shared, concretised and evaluated amongst poor communities (urban or rural) will aid the appropriate application of ICTs.

Accommodating all sectors of society (particularly rural communities, women and the disabled) in the transition from traditional through to new learning societies is an urgent issue for policy makers. Strategies should be developed for ICTs that specifically target women and young girls.

Purely market driven approaches will shift to serve the market but will not serve the needs of those unable to pay. Whilst private sector ICT providers should be encouraged to provide services to rural areas, there is a role here for Donors to service the ICT needs in areas where the private sector is unlikely to venture in the short term.

Evidence to date shows the importance of the telephone and the radio in changing the lives of the poor. The telephone is by far the most common communication technology to effect tangible positive change in on rural livelihoods (market and trading information, emergency and disaster communications, strengthening kinship relations, health services) and is the backbone of ICTs.

At present there is a vast unmet demand for radio broadcasting in developing countries. A commitment to rural broadcasting via appropriate creation and enforcement of policies to provide licences, support start up broadcasters and train professionals will enable information and communication services reach more people than any other medium.

In the immediate future there needs to be a broader understanding of 'e' commerce for small scale enterprises that include simple supply delivery communications, not all transactions need to take place over the web but the technology can facilitate information exchange leading to off-line transactions.


The final report is be completed by March 2000.

The authors would like to thank the participants of the London workshop for their contributions to the final report.

This briefing document is available online at:

Case studies for this research can be found at:

Full references for this research can be found at:


Appleton, H. [ed] (1995). Do It Herself: Women and technical innovation. Intermediate Technology Publications, London.

Barton, C. & Bear, M. (1999). Information an Communication Technologies: Are they the key to viable business development services for micro and small enterprises? Report for USAID as part of the Microenterprises Best Practices Project. March 1999 by Development Alternatives Inc, MD, USA.

Benjamin, P [ed] (1999). Universal Access Review. October 1999. Graduate School of Public and Development Management. University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Duncome, R (1999). The Role of Information and Communication Technology for SME Development in Botswana: Interim Report. A research project sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID)UK.

Fouche, B. (1999). A Web-Based Agricultural System for South Africa. Feasibility Study - Part 1. National Department of Agriculture March 1999. Unpublished document.

Heeks R (1999). Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development. Development Informatics: Working paper Series. Paper No 5, June 1995 Institute of Development Policy and Management. Published on the www:

Norrish P (1999b). Best Practice guidelines for Improved Communication Strategies for the Promotion and Dissemination of Natural Resource Research Outputs. Draft Report Volume One. AERDD, The University of Reading.

Norrish, P. (1998). Foreword. In Richardson, D. (ed) The First Mile of Connectivity: Advancing Telecommunications for Rural Development Through a Participatory Communication Approach, FAO, Rome.

Robinson, S. (1998). Telecentres in Mexico: The first phase. Paper presented to the UNRISD Conference.

Slim, H. & Thompson, P. (1993). Listening for a Change: Oral History and Development. London. Panos Publications.

Stillitoe, P. (1998). The Development of Indigenous Knowledge: A new applied anthropology. In Current Anthropology, Volume 49, No 2 April 1998, p. 223-253.

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