Communication for development Knowledge

Posted September 1996

The Internet and Rural Development: Recommendations for Strategy and Activity

Chapter 2. Current Context and Applications


Introduction | Table of Contents | Executive Summary | Preface/Acknowledgements | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Project suggestions | Bibliography/Resources | WWW sites | Glossary


"Access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) implies access to channels and modes of communication that are not bound by language, culture, or distance. New forms of social organization and of productive activity emerge, which, if nurtured, could become transformational factors as important as the technology itself."
- International Development Research Centre (http://www.idrc.ca), July 1996.

The range of locally initiated Internet services in developing countries is remarkable. Many of these services have emerged with little or no external support, and many have become viable commercial services or not-for-profit services operated by NGOs. Several international development agencies and international NGOs are finding ways to assist in the development and strengthening of indigenous Internet services, infrastructure and information providers.

The list of these agencies is long. Notable examples include:


Along with the larger agencies working in this field, there are several NGOs which specialize in providing Internet services to NGOs, governments, educational institutions, healthcare organizations and other parts of civil society in developing (and developed) countries. Examples include:

The Emergence of the Internet: A Decentralized "People's Network" is Born

The Internet was conceived and designed in 1963 by Larry Roberts working for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) through funding from the U.S. Department of Defence (Negroponte, Nicholas - "Being Digital", 1996). ARPAnet, as it was then called, emerged as a communication tool in the late 1960's for a handful of Defence workers and contractors. It was designed to be a fail-safe communication system because it would be a fundamentally decentralized network. People could send packets of information from one computer to another, across the United States, and those packets could travel through a variety of different routes to reach their destination. If one or several routes is destroyed or malfunctioning, the packets find alternative routes and eventually reach their destinations. ARPAnet grew during the late 1960's and 1970's because new "nodes" and routes were added to reach University researchers. The many benefits of electronic mail were attractive to users, and as a wider community of faculty and students began to use the tool, it quickly gained popularity in North America as a communication tool. Because it was a decentralized network, there was little way to control its popular expansion, and it soon transcended its Department of Defence mentors.

The Internet today is a peoples' network. Anyone with basic computer equipment and a phone line can connect to it, communicate through it, host information on it, and look through it. Unlike many other media such as television and radio, every user of the medium can be an information producer and knowledge sharer. No one knows for sure how many people are using the Internet today, but estimates range from forty to one hundred million people. In countries such as Thailand, Internet use is growing at a current rate of close to 1,000% per year.

Communicating over the Internet is hundreds of times less expensive than using traditional telephones or fax because information flows in discrete packets of digital bits that are able to share telecommunication lines with hundreds of other packets. Where a traditional trans-Atlantic telephone call will tie up a single phone line for only two people, an email message can travel along a phone line with hundreds and even thousands of other messages. Commercial organizations offer Internet access, but have very little ability to exercise control over what people choose to do with that access. As a network of networks, the more networks and users added to the system, the more powerful the Internet becomes for everyone. Thus, the Internet is cheap, powerful, decentralized and in the hands of civil society. It is also the first media tool that allows every user to be a sender, receiver, narrowcaster and broadcaster.

Ten Common Elements

There are ten common elements among successful rural and agricultural Internet communication and information systems:

Local private sector or not-for-profit Internet Service Providers tend to be able to operate efficiently and profitably while providing customers with reasonable service prices. They are able to quickly troubleshoot and solve service problems, they can access capital through investment and credit, and they are able to offer strong local user support, customer troubleshooting (often with house calls), and local training. Because they are dependent upon customer revenue for profitability, they are likely to respond quickly to customer needs and demands. Government operated ISPs tend to be less able to meet customer needs and are often less responsive because they have other sources of support than customer fees. Local private sector and not-for-profit ISPs also contribute to the local economy and stimulate local interest in telecommunication through personal contacts and relationships.

The Mexicali Experience: FAO - Farmer Partnership

The Emergence of "Building a network is a piece of cake... putting people together to use one is difficult"
- Marco A. Pena, Technical Support Manager, CETYS Universidad, Mexicali, Mexico (http://www.mxl.cetys.mx/) discussing his contribution to a FAO supported Internet service for farm organizations (personal communication, June, 1995)

One small FAO supported initiative that exhibits the above elements is in Mexicali, Mexico (http://cucapah.mxl.cetys.mx/). In 1994, as part of FAO's Latin American communication for development effort, community animators initiated an extensive participatory communication and information needs assessment among six hundred local farmers and their organizations (personal communication with Emilio Canton, FAO-Mexico). The results indicated that farmers strongly desired an improved communication system, and local leaders required a better management communication system for organizing activities, and for agricultural and irrigation planning among twenty-three local organizations. As well, the farmers wanted better methods for general communication and information sharing to assist in the planning of current and future work and activities. One strategy that they proposed was a computer-based communication system.

In the Fall of 1995 ninety farm organization representatives took part in a workshop on development communication where plans were developed for an Internet based computer communication system. Most equipment would be purchased and owned by the farmers' organizations, and preliminary technical support would be provided by a local private technical university (CETYS: http://infux.mxl.cetys.mx/indexeng.html) already offering commercial and not-for-profit Internet services in the region. A communication for development expert from FAO provided initial logistical coordination and technical backstopping for the first nine months of the initiative. A computer network server was installed at the university and each farmer organization was issued an account for dial-in access to a small pool of three modems connected to the server. By June of 1996, twelve farmers' organizations were connected and using the system, several World Wide Web information services were available, and plans were being made to improve the system and involve all twenty-three farmers' organizations in the Rio Colorado Valley. Existing users make use of email on a daily basis, and submit daily reports on irrigation quotas and planting activities to the local irrigation water authority.

Current plans include providing a directory of each farmer organization, its membership, its agricultural activities and production figures, and information about local conditions. Much of this information will be gathered through electronic mail, and retrievable through an Internet World Wide Web site. The farmers are proud of their community and its history, so they decided to organize a photograph contest to collect historical photographs of the region and its agricultural heritage to place on their World Wide Web homepage. They are planning to post their newsletters on the homepage as well, and hope to provide easy access to locally relevant market and weather information. Links will soon be made with the Technical Information and Communication Unit (TICU) (another FAO supported initiative in Sonora, Mexico) to expand access to TICU's a market information bulletin (currently distributed in Sonora by fax) (Fraser, 1996) by placing bulletin information on the CETYS University server for access throughout Mexico and the world (personal communication with Emilio Canton, FAO-Mexico).

These farmers' organizations have proven that Internet communication and information services are practical and beneficial when developed with full participation of users. While the system has a long way to go in order to develop further applications and enhance user involvement with new applications, it is already attracting significant interest within the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and other farmer organizations in Mexico. For example, Assistance and Services for Agricultural Marketing (ASERCA) is investigating the Mexicali experience in order to develop strategies for expanding farmer access to electronic information services related to marketing and the development of national and international trading links. There are even plans for developing an electronic trading system for agricultural products and services. The development communication approach used to form the Mexicali system is the key to its initial success and its future sustainability. Using this approach has enabled the organizational leaders to fully understand the value of the system and its applications, and led to the decision to take ownership of the infrastructure and network development.

The Chilean Experience: Starting with Small Producers and Their Needs

In Chile, FAO's Communication for Development in Latin America Project (GCP/RLA/114/ITA) is pioneering a participatory approach to the development of Internet information and communication networks among the farmer organizations of small scale producers (http://fao.cl/). This system provides farmer organizations with data on crops, international crop status and market timing, prices, markets (regional, national, international), weather, technical and training information, and information about the various organizations that support their work. As well, the users have full access to the Internet to find other information relevant to their lives and communities (eg. health, social service, education, etc.), and they can use electronic mail to communicate with other farm organizations in Chile, as well as any of the over 40,000,000 people using the global Internet world-wide.

The most important aspect of this initiative is its specific attention to local information needs assessments, and assisting farm organization personnel with developing the skills necessary to analyze and disseminate information that is locally relevant. This methodology emerged from previous development communication experiences using small format video, print media, and rural radio. It is very likely the most user oriented approach to developing Internet services in the developing world, and it is focused on rural and remote agricultural communities that would normally have little opportunity to access the benefits of Internet tools.

Small information centres are located within the offices of farmer organizations and NGOs, and some of these offices are beginning to open up their resources to non-agricultural community members such as youth groups and social service agencies. The network of users is currently small (five organizations), and may become a model for the development of a much wider network within Chile, and, with some external assistance, throughout Latin America. Much of the information available through the Chilean network is useful to other Spanish speaking Internet users (the same is true for the Mexican initiatives noted above). Indeed, after only a few weeks "on-line", the statistics generated for the Chilean World Wide Web site show that within a one month period, there were over 1,000 "hits" (Internet jargon for the number of accesses) from Latin Americans outside of Chile, and a further 1,000 hits from Internet users everywhere from Europe and North America to Asia and Australia. The site is now listed on the popular "Yahoo" Internet index, and is accessible through comprehensive keyword searches on various Internet search engines.

The Chilean experience provides a model for Internet service development that is sustainable and can be replicated and leveraged for other regions of Latin America and the world. The approach is incorporated in each of the specific proposals associated with this Report, and the author of this report plans to use aspects of the methodology for work with farmer organizations in Canada.

Other Experiences

The Mexican and Chilean experiences are unique examples of using a communication for development approach to create communication systems for small producers and rural and remote communities. Throughout the other countries visited, rural and remote access to the Internet is emerging slowly. To their credit, many organizations in Africa, including FAO and its supported projects, are developing World Wide Web based information tools that may someday be of direct benefit to small producers and rural and remote communities. In Zambia and Zimbabwe, for example, FAO projects are busy developing Internet based market information tools, household food security information systems, famine early warning systems and other sophisticated tools to assist decision makers. These systems are developed primarily by researchers and policy making bodies to fulfill their own internal information needs. Thus far, links to the ultimate beneficiaries of these initiatives are weak.

In Africa, indigenous Internet Service Providers such as ZAMNET (http://www.zamnet.zm)(which also services the HealthNet project that connects rural health centres to the Internet), SangoNet, MangoNet, Enda-Dakar and Internet Africa (http://www.harare.iafrica.com), appear to be the only organizations with the experience of actually providing Internet services to organizations and individuals in rural and remote areas. Their track records speak for themselves. They have managed to provide Internet services to many of the intermediary organizations that serve small producers and rural communities. Many of the field officers of UN agencies and multi-lateral donor projects make use of electronic mail and Internet information services provided by these indigenous services. The individuals who work within these Internet Service Providers tend to be extremely dedicated to their work and to improving Internet service in Africa.

Future Internet development activities for rural and remote communities, and farm organizations in Africa and Latin America ought to begin with existing ISPs and existing user groups. There is a wealth of experience, talent, creativity and local understanding available, and development agencies would be wise to utilize these resources at every opportunity.

Internet Applications in Support of Sustainable Rural and Agricultural Development

With regard to Internet use in support of rural and agricultural development, applications fall into five main areas: economic development for agricultural producers, community development, research/education, small and medium enterprise (SME) development, and media networks. The following sections explore these areas.

Economic Development Applications for Agricultural Producers

The Emergence of "The change to a global market economy over the last ten years has produced some very big changes for small producers. Now they need to understand global market situations to make better decisions about timing, marketing and management."
- Monica Besoain, Fieldworker for the Chilean NGO, INPROA, Rengo, Chile (personal communication, July, 1996)

Rural communities and small scale agricultural producers are deeply affected by global economic, environmental, and political forces. The idea that communities of small scale agricultural producers are isolated and living in closed, self-sufficient societies is a myth. Global trade relationships, such as GATT, NAFTA, and MERCOSUR, place rural communities and small scale agricultural producers, squarely in the middle of global market realities. Trade decisions in Rome or Chicago today affect campesinos in Mexico within hours. Interest rates, global commodity situations, changing trade patterns, transportation developments and tariff structures all impact upon even the smallest farm operation. Without knowledge and without the communication capabilities required to access, analyze and share the information required to create knowledge, small producers remain at the mercy of global market forces.

With knowledge, small producers can have a competitive edge over larger farm operations and corporate agriculture. Small producers often have the flexibility to quickly change crop choices, develop products for small niche markets and even market directly to the consumer or commodity broker in distant countries (c.f. Bridgehead - OXFAM Canada: http://www.web.net/oxfamgft/index.htm -or- International Small Business Consortium: http://www.isbc.com/). Small scale, labour intensive farming can reduce input costs and provide consumers with higher food quality, improved food safety and better food taste. When knowledge is harnessed by strong organizations of small producers, strategic planning can be used to provide members with lower cost inputs, better storage facilities, improved transportation links and collective negotiations with buyers.

Organizations of small producers want and need instant information on global market prices, negotiation techniques and strategies, analyses of product potentials in various markets, new production and marketing techniques, new transportation systems, and global trade rules. Information that can reduce the costs of transactions and improve prices received at markets (or open new markets) is highly valued. These organizations can and do act as communication conduits or intermediaries, facilitating the flow of information between local people and the rest of the world. The global Internet is one tool that can enhance this flow of information. It is an inexpensive way to communicate and access global information. Local Internet services can be easily managed by well organized local user groups and farmer organizations. Information and analyses can be tailored to local, regional and national knowledge and communication needs and realities. When combined with national and global market information systems, and with the ability to communicate quickly with potential buyers and brokers, local Internet systems become valuable strategic planning and decision making tools.

Community information centres and farmers' organizations can also gather information from the Internet and disseminate it via local radio stations, newspapers and other local information sharing networks and tools. For example, daily market prices and agricultural news can be posted at cooperatives, local stores, transportation hubs, agricultural supply outlets and social gathering points. Simple newsletters can be developed using Internet information and distributed to members of farmer organizations. When integrated with other media tools, the Internet can be a powerful information resource and research tool.

Community Development Applications

The Emergence of "Modern communication technologies, when systematically applied and adapted to conditions in rural areas of developing countries can be used for rural communication to increase participation, disseminate information and share knowledge and skills. The establishment of new institutional frameworks, including all stakeholders, which are autonomous and income generating, can lead to sustainable and cost-effective efforts, as opposed to working only with government agencies"
- Manuel Calvelo Rios, FAO Communication for Development in Latin America Project (FAO, 1996b)

Local community oriented Internet services are also valuable when placed in the service of rural development organizations which act as local communication conduits or intermediaries. Along with providing improved market knowledge, they can also:

Research/Education Applications

The Emergence of "Toolnet is a network for small scale development projects that fosters exchange of information, experiences, expertise, and solutions to technical problems. It provides multifunctional electronic mail to link field workers, local organizations, technological institutions, international development organizations, and individuals... directed toward technology transfer among developing countries... Points are operating or planned in about 25 countries worldwide."

The Emergence of - Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA) (http://www.vita.org/), 1995 (World Bank, 1995)

Within national, regional and international research communities, there is increased attention toward "participatory research" strategies (Chambers, 1996; FAO, 1995a, 1995b). These strategies place farmers and rural residents at the centre of the research process and enable them to enrich their knowledge base and share that knowledge base with one another, field workers, researchers and decision-makers at various levels. Internet use among intermediary organizations and leaders involved in participatory research can provide a cost effective method for documenting and sharing lessons learned and research results.

Internet use also has the potential to strengthen linkages between and among farmer organizations, extension workers, researchers, policy makers and other actors in the farming system. For example, international organizations such as the Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA) - http://www.gtz.de//gate/isat/ gate_mag/gate_95_3/texte/focus_8.html#ILEIA) and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) (http://www.cta.nl/) are working to advance knowledge and communication systems to enable intermediary organizations to create local information resources and share them around the world, and to access common information databases and learning tools related to sustainable and low input agriculture.

The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) (http://www.cgiar.org) has a highly advanced Integrated Voice and Data Network (IVDN) (http://www.cgiar.org:80/ivdn/) to link member organizations around the world and provide low cost member voice and data communications using Internet protocols. In only a year the CGIAR has linked three quarters of the international agricultural research centres to the system. IVDN services include:

This powerful network of research organizations has not yet developed significant electronic linkages to intermediary organizations and National Agricultural Research centres (NARS) that might assist in the dissemination of information and establishment of participatory research strategies. However, once intermediary organizations are connected to the Internet through local means, or through international networks such as the IVDN, the potential to develop and strengthen these linkages is very high. The same is also true for educational institutions in developing countries whose students and faculty members could gain access to research information, and share their own research results with the CGIAR, NARS, FAO and with other institutions involved in rural and agricultural research.

An investigation of the possibility of enabling NARS to access the CGIAR IVDN would be a very good fist step in the process of assisting NARS and intermediary organizations to harness the power of the Internet. In addition, the vast information resources of the CGIAR system (including information databases such as AGRIS) can be made generally accessible via the Internet, thus providing the world, including information-poor researchers in developing countries, with easy access to a huge depository of international agricultural research and information.

The cost of accessing printed academic materials within developing countries is usually so high that students and faculty members have great difficulty acquiring books and journals. As well, the time required to obtain printed materials from overseas can be long enough to render some information out-dated by the time it arrives. Via the Internet, any information published on-line can be accessed almost instantly and at a tiny fraction of the cost of obtaining printed materials. Information on the Internet is easy to access and archival lists of resources can be easily reviewed and assessed in remote locations.

Electronic distance education services are already in use in North America, Australia and Europe (particularly among people in rural areas), and with the continued growth of Internet access in developing countries, there is a very good chance that similar services will develop significant demand. Distance education (as well as traditional education) partnerships between universities in the North and the South (such as the partnerships between the University of Guelph and universities in Cameroon and India to develop distance education extension worker training programmes (http://tdg.uoguelph.ca/res)) have proven to be beneficial to the institutions involved. With the assistance of Internet tools, these partnerships can be further strengthened, and Internet learning resources can be cooperatively developed across oceans to be utilized by participants in developing nations. Of course, this process can work in the other direction too, to enable students in the North to learn more about the conditions, challenges, potentials and knowledge development of the South.

Overall, the Internet holds significant potential to enhance learning and research relationships among researchers, academics and students wherever they might be located. The list of potential applications is infinite and thousands of informal linkages of this sort take place every day on Internet discussion groups. Development agencies such as FAO can play a role in helping to formalize and provide credentials and diplomas for people who participate in specific electronic learning initiatives delivered via the Internet.

Within the Sustainable Development Department at FAO, for example, there are existing training and curriculum development projects focused on communication for development and extension worker training. Other FAO Departments and many other agencies have similar projects. The materials and processes created within these projects can be adapted for Internet distance education delivery. Such distance education projects could leverage the power of the Internet to facilitate local and international learner interaction and team learning contexts based on group learning projects, as opposed to the traditional "correspondence" style of distance education.

Small and Medium Enterprise Development

The Emergence of "The removal of international trade barriers has brought quickly changing global markets. Large international corporations can now compete for the SMEs' (Small and Medium Enterprises') market, but SMEs traditionally have not had the infrastructure andnecessary resources to fight back. Our Mission [is] to provide a productive and professional Internet / WWW based network to help SMEs communicate about business needs, share their resources and expand their markets."
- Mission statement for the International Small Business Consortium - http://www.isbc.com/)

Private sector businesses, large and small, are using the Internet to reach new markets, promote products and services globally, and access critical business and financial information.

Semex Canada (http://www.semex.com/) and Gencor (formerly United Breeders of Canada) (http://www.ubi.com/), major producers and international exporters of bull semen for artificial insemination, advertise their genetic resources with full colour Internet catalogues with pictures of sires. These companies now receive requests for products from beef and dairy producers from countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Japan who learn about their products only from the Internet. Rural food producers in North America now use the Internet to sell a wide variety or products including live lobsters, and packages of apples, oranges, grapefruit, cheeses, smoked meats, cookies and pies. Rural craft and manufactured goods producers sell everything from clothing to furniture over the Internet , and use the Internet to organize support networks (c.f. Women in Rural Economic Development: http://www.sentex.net/~wred/). The Internet represents a global storefront for such rural and remote businesses, providing them with access to customers never before possible.

The tourism sector has been quick to recognize the benefits of the Internet for advertising destinations, tours and holiday services. For all of the countries visited on this mission, the author was able to make use of World Wide Web travel information from the host countries in order to make travel plans. With full colour pictures, and information on hotels, weather, attractions, events, travel tips, currency conversion rates, visa information and much more, travellers are able to obtain timely and accurate information and make informed destination choices. Of particular interest are the World Wide Web sites for "ecotourism," game parks, and adventure tours in rural areas of Southern Africa where rural tourism is a growing industry (c.f. Welcome to Zimbabwe: Africa Tour Net: http://wn.apc.org/mediatech/tourism/index.htm). Tourism operators in rural and remote areas have a difficult time marketing their destinations through traditional media due to production and distribution costs. The Internet now represents a very inexpensive way for them to showcase their sites to the world, and interact directly with potential tourists.

News Media Networks

The news media in developing countries have also been on the forefront of developing Internet applications. For example, in Zambia, both national daily newspapers mirror their daily copy on the World Wide Web (http://www.zamnet.zm), making the local news accessible to expatriate Zambians who live around the world. Email discussion groups provide these expatriates with an opportunity to discuss the daily news with one another and with their Internet connected peers in Zambia. A discussion group joined by the author generated a minimum of thirty email messages per day! Such email discussion groups for expatriates and nationals exist for virtually every developing country in the world and represent a relatively untapped resource for accessing the views, ideas and creativity of members of civil society with regard to development policy and initiatives.

In addition to the latter news and information applications, organizations such as Inter Press Service Third World News Agency (IPS) (http://www.link.no/IPS/eng/intro.html) use the Internet to source news stories from local writers in developing countries and share those stories with international wire services such as Associated Press. IPS is also able to provide Internet feeds that enable African news media to have access to African news from around the continent. This is particularly relevant to rural radio stations and other rural newspaper and newsletter producers that would otherwise have been unable to obtain the same news from other sources. IPS can also provide an outlet for rural news writers to share their stories regionally, nationally and globally. Similar Internet strategies for rural radio networks, which might also incorporate digital audio transmissions, may well emerge in the near future.



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