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October 2004

ICT needs for improved agriculture in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

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 ICT infrastructure and application for agricultural research in the following five Macedonian agricultural organizations and their partners:

The Agricultural Research Institute (ARI) is in part government funded (salaries of 36, of which 20 scientists, out of 460 employees) with most funding coming through project grants. ARI consists of four departments: Plant Protection, Genetics, Soil Science and Biotechnology, plus one seed control laboratory.

The Tobacco Research Institute (TRI) is government funded and serves a struggling tobacco industry and growers (40-50 000 small family farms).

The National Extension Agency (NEA) with 100 extension officers and 30 branch offices is funded by the Ministry of Finance and its main function is to give advice to farmers.

The Macedonian Agro Business Marketing Activity (MABMA), or Land O’Lakes Programme is a large programme mostly for the dairy and meat industry, implemented by the very large American dairy cooperative of the same name, with funding from the American Agency for Information.

The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) is present in T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia since the early 1990’s and currently supports a ten year programme (till 2009) for development of co-operation in finance, economic development for agriculture and environment, and linking government and private sector.

Background

Most of the arable land of T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia (approx. 80 percent) is cultivated by small farmers (average farm size 1-3 ha). The rest is under production by large private ex-combinates or is still under state-owned, loss-making combinate management. Much of agriculture production is irrigation dependant with old but functioning systems (20 000 to 40 000 ha in east central Macedonia). Researchers find themselves to provide services to the new large agriculture enterprises, while the new still weak producer organizations or small farmers cannot or do not want to pay for advice. Farmers’ education levels and technical knowledge are relatively high, but lack of openness to new technologies, shortage of available markets and small production volumes are limiting a spirit for innovation. Political conditions have made investments into the university and extension systems less efficient and have further delayed reforms.

Communication between buyers and producers is very difficult, and between researchers and producers is very limited. Several changes in regulations, e.g. taxation, now favouring imports, low adherence to weak standards and legislation and a flourishing black market import trade, are lowering producer confidence and marketability of their products. A fledgling processing industry receives foreign investments and support and may create local demand and more market reliability for producers.

Agricultural Information and Communication Systems

The status of ICT developments vary widely between the different universities and research institutes. The University in Skopje is well connected to the Internet and obtains some electronic journals. The University of Bitola has recently received funding for new computer equipment and has been connected to a private Internet access provider since the end of 2002. However, whilst Internet services are free at Skopje University, in Bitola some data has to be paid for. The Agricultural Research Institute (ARI) has 15 computers networked with permanent connections to the Internet and researchers receive information via the Internet. ARI has a website in English as well as in the Macedonian language. The Tobacco Research Institute (TRI) is in its third year of 24-hour Internet access. All institute computers are networked by a private company connecting via satellite independently of the Postal Services. Some Post Offices provide Internet access to the public and a few internet cafes exist in Skopje and some smaller towns. However small farmers in general have no access to the internet, neither privately or through public access points. SIDA support aims to establish offices for education in each of the six regions with three or four computers each that farmers can use; this needs to be accompanied by sufficient training.

Each of the 30 branch offices of NEA is connected to the Internet with one PC, although use of this resource has not been given major attention. The Agency also has a website which is not in use. Information for NEA comes mainly in printed project reports from university faculties and research institutes. SIDA would like there to be at least one more computer in each unit, and intends to donate about 50 computers.

MABMA is the only project currently producing useful market information through the project’s Department of Market Information. An American company provided training for the project to produce reports about the meat and dairy industries, distribution and prices. These are high quality reports, and are currently free of charge. The Department for Market Information also distributes a bimonthly magazine to the food industry and provides a guide to exporting.

The Statistical Department of the Ministry of Finance produces an annual bulletin with some information, but it is expensive (150 Euros for a few pages) and the information provided is very limited: number of companies, some production data, but of little relevance in terms of prices or marketing channels.

Part of the SIDA programme aims to build capacity in agricultural statistics through networking institutions involved in relevant activities. The project provides support for the agricultural census by supporting the activity of the National Extension Agency.

The National Association of Private Meat and Dairy Producers (NAPMDP), one of the main clients of the MABMA programme, acts as a base for information exchange between the Project and clients. They access market information on the web. Delegates were sent to Croatia to obtain information from TISUP’s Market Information System on export and trade agreements between T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia and Croatia, including addresses and telephone contacts with companies. But there is no such facility for foreign companies wanting to find out about the market in T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia. There is only one domestic company, Agency for Market, Information that conducts market research.

A recently concluded World Bank Programme has funded the reform of the National Extension Agency (NEA). The Agency’s headquarters and 30 offices in 6 regions of T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia were equipped with cars, computers and mini-labs. The Agency now receives 100 percent funding from the Ministry of Finance, but apparently the agency is not yet operating to the full benefit of farmers. The 100 extension officers collect data on income, yields, and expenses from farmers at least once per month and enter the data into NEA’s database. Farmers trust advisors and co-operation with data collection is good. The Agency is well equipped and well resourced with technological skills and the officers are diligent in their farm data collection and submission to the main office in Bitola. However the primary objective of this database is to help the Agency in providing advice based on this data, which is not yet the case. A sub-component of the SIDA project is to up-grade the existing farm monitoring system and improve the quality of data in collaboration between NEA and the Statistics Department. It also foresees stakeholder involvement in designing modalities for financing and providing advisory services. Currently the only alternative to government funded services is private consultancies.

The Research Institutes are affiliated with the universities and are very poorly resourced by the Government. Government funds salaries which however constitute only about 20 percent of the institutes’ total budgets, with the remainder coming from project funds. Institutional involvement in client and end-user contact (advice) and management and administrative use of ICTs is beyond current means. Small producers often visit Research Institutes in person to receive advice.

The Agricultural Research Institute (ARI) has about 360 hectares of arable land much of which is in trials that can be shown to the farmers, but advisory links between the institute and farmers are not strong. Many researchers apparently are more interested in scientific work than dissemination of knowledge. Much of ARI’s work is contract seed production and sales. Other services include soil testing and plant health diagnosis. The Ministry of Agriculture contracts ARI for village-level lectures on plant protection and vegetable varieties, and the Ministry of Science and Education finances the improvement of the National Seed Bank through ARI.

The Tobacco Research Institute (TRI), once one of the best equipped and strongest research institutions in T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia, now has no funds to invest in modern technologies and might be privatized. Every year the Institute organizes open days on its own trial fields to which tobacco producers and companies and members of the Tobacco Association are invited. There is a Biennial Tobacco Symposium in Ohrit at which all research outputs are presented to the industry and associations. 2002 was the 20-year jubilee and 5 farmers from each farm organization were given bursaries to attend. Up to 2-3 years ago, 1-day seminars were organized for technicians working in tobacco companies, but now the industry is in a very difficult situation. In 2002, a few seminars were organised in rural areas through the extension service.

The Livestock Institute has been developing electronic tagging for a traceability system and to extend this work the proposal is to establish a central office with computer hardware and data base operators to input details on a regular weekly basis for every farm. The Institute participated in a 2.5-year project of adaptive research and technology transfer which aimed to increase profitability of small farmers in different enterprises including grape and livestock production. Collaboration worked well and the benefits of combining scientific knowledge and practical skills were appreciated.

All institutes have international connections and enjoy international project support. Donors fund networking with neighbouring countries (SIDA, regional statistics) or training in dairy and livestock production (USAID with NAPMDP as training center for technicians from Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria and Kosovo) and between producer organizations (SIDA, the Macedonian National Organization of Farming with the Swedish Farming Union).

ARI has a good library, receives a few international journals and has a budget for acquisition of books. The Entomology Institute for example has to finance library acquisitions with very limited income from consultancy fees and sales which also support research and staff. The TRI subscribes to industry and research journals and receives much of its information as member of the International Organization for Tobacco Research, in part on CD.

Mass media are hardly used and FAO assistance through the Livestock Institute explores their better integration.

Data collection for policy decision support has only recently been strengthened through the SIDA project with the Statistics Department. NEA’s farm survey could become a useful tool for this purpose as well. Concerted efforts to improve data collection and evaluation plus training for the best application of the data will enable better planning and more efficient use of the very limited resources at various levels of the NARS and other stakeholders in rural development.

Agricultural policies in general are weak, sometimes contradictory or counter productive or lacking coordination with policy and action by other ministries. A NARS concept or its perceived need seems to be lacking. No policy for agricultural ICT development exists at a national level or apparently at most institutional levels. The very young history of policy making in the country underscores the need for awareness and actual efforts for agricultural policy in general and for the optimization of ICT potentials in NARS and agriculture development in particular.

Main conclusions

Research information of national use is not readily accessible to producers other than through personal contact and a few extension seminars. Researchers themselves have reasonable access to electronic and printed information while ICT capacities are not well employed for research and organizational management. Research orientation is still towards mostly large scale exploitations rather than based on needs by the much larger community of small scale farmers. Communication channels, policies and finances to improve this research orientation are not available. However, project experience of participatory research collaboration was perceived very positively but continuation and up-scaling are lacking funding, awareness and perhaps also commitment.

The well equipped National Extension Agency is not exploiting most of the ICT opportunities at the fingertips of its fairly well-trained staff. Thus technical information flow to the Agency is still paper based and communication to end users does not work for a number of additional reasons, despite good agency and farmer relations. The role of producer organizations in IC flow is weak except in the dairy and livestock sector which was strengthened with substantial donor support. Collection of useful data for decision makers or producers, processors or traders is in its infancy but with promising progress. Accessibility of such data will depend on modalities for financing of data collection and technology availability to users for retrieving the information in a timely fashion.

Government could achieve much by simply providing better access to and elaborating available information. Some Post Offices have an Internet connection and this practice could be increased greatly and used as a resource by rural populations.

Considerable investment is necessary to reform the whole agricultural research structure and facilities without which further investment in the extension service and ICT will also have limited effectiveness.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are drawn from the assessment of the report. However the recommendations presented in the other country studies are in part or full also relevant to T.F.Y.R. of Macedonia:


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