The Internet

The Internet represents the largest computer network in the world. In order to understand its potential to contribute to rural development and food security in Africa, it is useful to consider how it was created. The Internet emerged in the early 1960s, in the context of the Cold War, from research funded by the United States Department of Defense. It was designed as a decentralized computer network that was less vulnerable to nuclear attack than a centrally controlled system. A decentralized, "fail-safe" system was devised whereby computers sent packets of information from one computer to another across the United States. Alternative computer routes allowed the information to reach its destination in the event that one or more routes were destroyed.

Soon, new "nodes" or routes were added to connect researchers located at universities and colleges. A large community of users beyond the military began to use the network, which became increasingly personalized since computers could "talk" with each other through electronic mail. This popular utilization of the network foreshadowed what the Internet would become – an instrument of connectivity not just of machines, but also of people.

Today, the Internet is a global "peoples' network" for communicating and sharing information. It consists of two powerful tools – e-mail and the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW is the part of the Internet where a vast global information resource, or library, has emerged in recent years. Estimates range from 50 to 100 million current Internet users, and its use is growing rapidly. In some developing countries, such as Thailand, Internet use is growing at a rate of close to 1 000 per cent per year. If current trends continue, it is estimated that over 100 million computers will be linked to the Internet by the year 2000, any one of which might connect one person or thousands of individuals.

From its early origins, the Internet has become a vast and growing global network that people use to converse, debate, meet, teach, learn, buy and sell, and share virtually every type of information imaginable.

The success of the Internet in developed countries strongly suggests that it has great potential for development purposes. Like many communication technologies before it, the Internet enables rural communities to receive information and assistance from outside development organizations. However, unlike such mass media, the Internet is the first medium that allows every user to be a sender, receiver, narrowcaster and broadcaster. As such, the Internet offers opportunities for two-way and horizontal communication and for opening up new, non-traditional communication channels for rural communities and development organizations. Most importantly, it can support bottom-up articulation of development needs and perceptions. Employing the Internet for rural development can potentially:

The information revolution offers Africa a dramatic opportunity to leapfrog into the future, breaking out of decades of stagnation and decline. Africa must seize this opportunity quickly. If African countries cannot take advantage of the information revolution and surf this great wave of technological change, they may be crushed by it. In that case, they are likely to be even more marginalized and economically stagnant in the future thna they are today.

The World Bank, Increasing Internet connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1996

The quote above reflects the view of "cyberspace optimists" who believe that the Internet and other new information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help "leapfrog" developing countries – that is, allow them to jump generations of technological change, moving quickly from agrarian societies to information societies.

There are undoubtedly good reasons for the widespread belief that the Internet is a potent social and economic force. However, many observers caution that the new "information marketplace" will increase the gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people. While there is little doubt that the Internet is spreading rapidly in many developing countries, including those in Africa, it is also true that many developing countries lack the basic telecommunication infrastructure required for widespread Internet access.

This is illustrated by the average "teledensity" (main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) in developing countries as compared to the world average of about 11 per 100 persons. For example, the present teledensity in China is 1.7 per 100 persons, in Pakistan it is 2 and in India it is 0.8. Teledensity in South Africa is 9.5, which is one of the highest figures in Africa. In many rural areas the figure is lower than 0.1, that is one telephone for every for every 1 000 persons. The situation must also take into account the various indicators of information prosperity and poverty – ICT policy frameworks and infrastructure, computer hardware and software, ICT literacy (i.e., number of people trained to use information technologies) and relative costs of purchasing ICTs and using them.

One approach that is being explored by international and national development organizations for providing rural access to modern information and communication technologies is through "telecentres". These are shared information and communication facilities in isolated rural communities where people do not have the skills to use modern ICTs or cannot afford to use them.

Telecentres are relatively recent phenomena. The first ones appeared in Europe in the 1980s, where the idea spread quite rapidly. More recently, they have been established in some developing countries, for example in rural towns in Brazil where plans are to establish several hundred in the next few years. Telecentres can provide access to telephone and fax services, e-mail, Internet and electronic networks, databases and libraries. They can also link the Internet to local media such as radio and television and thus make telecentre information accessible to wider audiences.

Telecentres should not be seen as just information technology centres. They can also facilitate local sharing of information and help create common, local development visions. Telecentres are not only facilities for single-point access to external information services (e.g., government marketing and price information) or to global information through the WWW, but are also facilities for organizing virtual village-to-village meetings and tele-training events.

Multipurpose community telecentre (MCT) pilot project in Uganda

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has proposed an MCT pilot project in Uganda based on a 1995 study of rural telecommunications. The pilot project proposes to extend the existing networks using Digital Multi-Access Radio Systems (DMARS), small capacity radio systems and small capacity rural electronic exchanges with wireless access networks. It would cover the Masaka, Rakai and Kalanga districts and a total population of 1.2 million, The pilot project anticipates that terminals for tele-medicine and tele-education would be provided in a total of 80 MCTs.

It is important to realize that provision of ICTs should not be a goal in itself. Instead, the goal should be the introduction of telecentre facilities in an integrated effort to support community de-velopment. Telecentre pilot projects should focus on the adaptation of applications and content to the local context so that they are relevant to a particular area of development activity (e.g., medicine, education, agriculture) and the training of local telecentre support staff and users. For example, the agricultural and rural development applications of telecentres for improved food security should support activities such as:

In Africa, local and regional Internet service providers such as Zamnet, SangoNet, MangoNet, Enda-Dakar and Internet Africa are organizations with tangible experience 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, rural communities and agricultural organizations.

D. Richardson, The Internet and rural and agricultural development, FAO, 1998

Significant sums of money are being invested by governments, donors, development organizations and the commercial private sector to deploy the new information and communication technologies in Africa. In the rush to "wire" countries, it is important to recognize that the effective application of the Internet to rural and agricultural development requires an approach that focuses on enhancing information and knowledge sharing, both vertically and horizontally. If used effectively, the new ICTs can improve communication among rural communities and agricultural organizations that support them with research, extension and training for improved food production. The basis of such an approach is human resource development and organizational capacity building for local use and management of Internet tools and resources.

Conclusions and a look into the future

Communication is a key component of human resource development for sustainable agricultural production and improved food security in Africa. The full potential of agricultural development and ensuring food security can only be realized if improved farming knowledge and technology are communicated effectively, and if rural people are involved in the process and motivated to achieve success.

Communication can facilitate agricultural development by giving a voice to those involved (rural people, development workers, researchers, input suppliers, local authorities and national decision makers); fostering acceptance of agricultural development policies and programmes; mobilizing people for participation and action; conveying information for education and training; and helping to disseminate new technologies.

Communication media and techniques can help overcome barriers of literacy, language, cultural differences and physical isolation. They are powerful tools to inform and educate people about new agricultural ideas and technical innovations for improved food production.

Effectively using communication to improve food security in Africa first requires an understanding of the knowledge and information needs of farmers and rural people and then the application of appropriate communication strategies, media and messages. Governments require advice on communication as part of rural development policy and help in establishing national communication systems which can support food production initiatives. Extension agents and other development workers need training in communication skills, methodologies and media uses. Field-based research is essential for identifying innovative, successful and cost-effective communication approaches for specific audiences, tasks and messages.

For example, there are many useful lessons to be learned from the use of traditional folk media for health education, rural radio for community involvement and to reach remote areas, multimedia modules for farmer training, video for making villagers' needs "visible" to development planners, and the Internet for linking researchers, extension agents, educators and producer groups with each other and with global information sources.

There is a wide range of media available and currently used in communication for development in Africa. Media, of course, differ with respect to forms of symbolic representation (text, visuals audio, etc.), direction of interaction (one-way one-to-one, two-way one-to-one, two-way many-to-many), and a host of other factors such as cost, availability and the skills required to use them (literacy, computer skills, etc.). There is strong evidence that no one medium is inherently better than another and that a mix of media may often be more effective and efficient than any single medium.

There are no simple prescriptions for media selection or doing communication for development well. However, the time-tested adage "know your audience" is a useful starting place. This means beginning with an understanding of the intended audience, listening and observing, before selecting media or preparing messages. Only an audience participation-based approach to communication will assure that the messages in the media channels are responsive to the needs of farmers and rural people.

Today, a computer-based communication network, the Internet, spans most of the globe and is rapidly extending into remote areas. Different media may be suitable for different uses in different parts of a particular communication network. Global media such as the Internet may be effective for communicating across the world while other media may be better suited for extending information to specific audiences. For example, electronic mail can improve dialogue among agricultural researchers and the results of their experiments can be shared globally via the Internet. These results can also be simultaneously available to agricultural extension offices where they can be shared directly with some groups of farmers or "re-packaged" to communicate to more distant, perhaps less literate groups of farmers through other communication channels.

Rural telecentres can serve as information "depots" or "hubs" that place regional, national and international information at the fingertips of agricultural development workers – information on markets, weather, crop and livestock production, natural resource protection. Exchanging information with farmers and villagers may often still be best done by more conventional or traditional methods of information dissemination, but rural telecentres can be a valuable information hub at the centre of a communication network. In Africa, agricultural colleges, rural schools, experiment stations, extension offices, non-governmental organizations and in some places farmer organizations offer a ready-made institutional and human network for electronic connectivity.

It is through the use of a variety of media and their integration with local communication networks that more people throughout Africa can be heard and can be reached. Using communication media mixes, rural Africans can be brought into a dialogue about the things that affect their livelihoods and be part of a process of knowledge and information sharing for improved food security. In choosing media for development tasks, it is important to pay attention to the different media arrangements that can be utilized (public/private ownership, individual or group use) in order to help close rather than widen the gap between information "haves" and information "have-nots".

Man with cattle

Decisions about the new ICTs should be tempered by a careful analysis of the "information gap effect". The potential of recent information and communication innovations such as the Internet are attractive, but traditional folk media, rural radio and video have important roles to play in closing knowledge and information gaps. Enthusiasm for the new communication technologies should be balanced with an awareness that their use may not be "leveling the playing field", but instead helping those who already have the best access to information to get more.

Translating the potential of ICTs to current practice is still a future reality for rural regions of many African countries. Electronic connectivity usually covers only the major cities, rarely reaching the isolated rural areas where many farmers live. Rural electronic connectivity (what some people call the "last mile" and others the "first mile" of connectivity) is still a distant reality for many villagers.

Communication on its own leads nowhere. It must be part of, and a partner in, a process of sustainable development. At its core, communication is about the human factor in development. It is most useful when it starts by listening to what people already know, what they aspire to become, what they perceive is possible and what they can productively sustain.

Rural radio: listening group

A decisive role can be played by communication in promoting human development in today's climate of social and economic change. As societies move towards greater democracy, decentralization and market economies, and as new technologies become more widely available, conditions are improving for people to direct their own courses of change. Communication is vital for stimulating their awareness and participation and for improving their knowledge and capabilities. Communication is also essential for helping government staff and local authorities enter into a development process with rural people as a genuine expression of a common cause and future.

Communication skills and technologies are central to these tasks and challenges. Whether villages in Africa are connected to the outside world through modern telecommunications, learn about health care through folk proverbs and songs or listen to radio broadcasts about environmental damage caused by bushfires, the processes are the same-- people communicating and learning for improved food security and sustainable development.