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September 2004

ICT needs for improved agriculture in Croatia

Published by the FAO Regional Office for Europe

Summary

An FAO commissioned study of: ‘Needs Assessment for Information and Communication Capacity Building for Improved Agriculture in three East European Countries: Romania, Croatia and T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia’ – conducted by G.C. Holt, University of Reading, UK – assessed information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and application for agricultural research in the following five Croatian agricultural organizations and their partners:

The Extension Agency is part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), and is government funded but independently managed.

The Ecological Production and Co-operation with Producers and Associations Division, a special department responsible for support to organic agriculture located within the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF).

TISUP (Tržišni informacijski sustav u poljoprivredi), independent of central government, operates the on-line Market Information System (MIS) for Agriculture, which helps farmers understand and access markets and facilitates trade.

The International Office of Osijek University is part of the Rector’s Office responsible for inter-departmental liaison.

BIOPA is one of two national certification bodies that has been working with organic farmers for the last five years.

Background

Croatia’s agricultural development has been strongly effected not only by the structural changes following the break-up of the former Republic of Yugoslavia (50 percent or land was farmed by large heavily subsidized, vertically integrated agricultural holdings), but also by demographic changes after the war (high rate of absentee land ownership). The three major agro-ecological zones differ largely in crops and access to markets, but all producers in all regions have access to a very high level of direct subsidies (approx. 200 million € in 2003). The large number of very small holdings (averaging approx. 2.5 ha) make outreach for technical assistance and economically feasible production difficult. A well equipped extension service attempts to provide specialized assistance also in agrotourism, and organic and traditional production. Hunting and beekeeping are important income sources as well. Additional attempts to diversify rural income are made at policy level (laws, regulations and subsidies) which try to align policy and law as much as possible with EU regulations in view of future accession.

Farmers tend to join associations or cooperatives to receive benefits, but are less inclined to use cooperative marketing strength due to deeply rooted mistrust and fear of being cheated. Old established universities are rebuilding, restructuring and reorienting, but much of the research programmes are still oriented towards large scale farming and crops like wheat and maize.

After a general description of the agriculture situation in Croatia the full report describes the ICT related details. Only these latter will be very briefly summarized here.

Agricultural Information and Communication Systems

Universities, research stations and institutes were well established before independence and are still struggling to rebuild war damage or build new structures and (re-) establish communication channels. Communication via e-mail is feasible between university faculties, research institutes and some producer associations. Whereas university faculties are networked to each other, they are not linked to extension services or large agricultural holdings with significant technical knowledge. Newly founded institutions, created alongside the poorly functioning existing ones, are not networked with each other.

A draft design for a National Agriculture Research System (NARS) was developed by the Faculty of Agronomy of Zagreb University. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) and EU funding support international relations for the Agriculture Faculties at the four Universities in Zagreb, Osijek, Rijeka and Split. Since 2002, research funding from the government has become competitive under the supervision of the Agriculture Research Council.

Research results are presented at an annual National Agriculture Symposium, which serves as the major communication channel with agriculture research users. Pressure to publish the results in internationally indexed journals is felt to contribute little to national agricultural practices and no equivalent national publications exist. More frequently, symposia or courses for farmers are not held due to shortage of travel funds and honorarium fees. The Ministry of Science advocates using the electronic form of the official newsletter of the Republic of Croatia for the publication of agriculture information. The cost of the browser for accessing the otherwise free website was given as reasons for not using this resource.

In general recognition that information is important for agriculture development, the MAF had offered special project funds to mark ten years of “informatization” in Croatia. Universities work on the adaptation of e-technologies for farmers, such as econometric models and interactive software for farm budgeting. However, like much of the other research, this is primarily aimed at larger farmers, most of which have their own PCs. Most small farmers and producer associations on the contrary have neither PCs, nor access through facilities at community level. BIOPA for example cannot use email to deliver messages or advice to producers or arrange contracts with merchants and thus needs to rely on costlier telephone and personal meeting contacts.

TISUP maintains a free web-based agriculture market information system (MIS) with weekly minimum, maximum and average prices in large city wholesale markets and in shops. Further services include market cost calculations, buy and sell via phone and web, fortnightly reports, and information on prices that are published in other media like newspaper and radio. Users of the web services are mainly larger wholesalers and traders rather than small-scale producers. The MIS does not function well across regional markets between which there is scarce exchange of information and consequently little flow of goods. TISUP has a clear vision for developing the service, including marketing its software to neighbouring countries and making the service financially sustainable. Other Central European countries (Hungary, Bulgaria) have greater human resources for their Market Information Systems and greater output than TISUP, but the TISUP website stands out as an example of good IT practice.

The Extension Agency publishes a bulletin (hardcopy only) for extension officers with information on national extension activities and with articles from international experts in extension and knowledge transfer. BIOPA has so far printed 15 issues of a newsletter which is in high demand.

The Extension Agency is reasonably well equipped with IT (through a World Bank project) at headquarters and county level, but outside these offices there is little computerization. There is practically daily communication from headquarters to the offices and there is an activity monitoring system operating on different levels. All extension staff has access to computers, all have e-mail addresses and information moves around on the Internet. Staff is reasonably well trained, with around 80 percent of extension staff being computer literate and competent in using the Internet to access information. The Agency has computerized databases and a good website although the Agency does not consider the web an adequate medium because extension requires interaction, experimentation and demonstration. Much technical assistance is given on-farm and, in addition, the extension service provides grants and loans. Most training activities take place in winter courses. A few small-scale farmers have computers but not enough to consider a direct Internet platform for communication viable. There are also plans to use IT for preparing meetings and participation at fairs and exhibitions, thus eliminating a very time consuming usage of fax and telephone.

Good university libraries are available, while producer organizations generally do not keep libraries with the exception of BIOPA, which keeps a small specialized library established with donor funding.

Main conclusions

The national Agricultural Knowledge and Information System has benefited greatly from World Bank support which contributed largely to the now well structured and reasonably well resourced Extension Agency. Re-training of agency technicians in new/additional rural development activities like agrotourism and organic agriculture and participatory methods (research/learning tools) will also open opportunities to simultaneously introduce new electronic resources. Delivery to end-users still requires improvement on traditional as well as new communication techniques and technologies and closer collaboration with information providers.

Universities and research institutions are reasonably well equipped and trained. However e-communication is more used for intra-institutional communication than inter-institutional networking. Many Ministry of Agriculture services have a high standard of equipment and connectivity use and are building their respective data bases.

The Market Information System built by TISUP with donor (mostly EU) funding is of exceptional standard for the region and undergoes continuous upgrading while further sector coverage (five product sectors are covered at present) will require additional personnel. However, whereas there is some Internet access in rural areas, it is mainly large companies that benefit from web based information.

At a local level, individual farmers and local producer associations need to have access to a networked computer. They also need to be informed of the possibilities of using the Internet to receive vital agricultural and market information, such as through the TISUP website www.tisup.mps.hr/hr/default.asp. There are also training and awareness raising needs in this area, as many farmers have only a minimal education and are in general resistant to certain changes.

Strong efforts to comply with EU accession requirements are driving forces in developing data base systems for collecting appropriate statistics.

Recommendations

At the beginning of the diffusion of a new technology only a privileged few can and will afford it. Once its use and usefulness has been proven and continues to spread slowly, more people will join and find it affordable enough to invest in it.


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