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Closing the digital divide for Zambia's farmers

The Chinyunya telecentre is changing the way that farmers receive agricultural information (© Georgina Smith)
The Chinyunya telecentre is changing the way that farmers receive agricultural information
© Georgina Smith

Rows of mobile telephones sit recharging in the Chinyunya community telecentre, an hour's drive east of Zambia's capital Lusaka. Powered by 67 1 x 0.5m solar panels and offering a photocopier, projector and three internet-connected computers as well as phone services, the centre is changing the way that farmers in the area receive agricultural information.

Whether it's investigating drought-resistant plants, choosing the best crop rotation, or learning how to retain water in the soil, the internet offers ideas and solutions which can be refined or adapted in discussion with extension officers. The telecentre acts as a point for sharing and accessing previously unavailable information on market prices, machinery and fertiliser availability, and is a networking hub for local agricultural training centres offering advice on organic farming and other practices.

Climate challenge

With temperatures in Zambia rising at roughly twice the global average, according to the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources, information to help rural communities adapt to climate variability is vital for their survival. "The internet is an excellent source of information which can help out communities," says Dean Mulozi, regional facilitator for the Southern Africa Telecentre Network, SATNET, a communication network which has been working to build up availability of digital technology in rural areas since 2008.

Supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural Cooperation (CTA) and the InfoBridge Foundation, both based in the Netherlands, SATNET works with agencies to buy and set up satellites to serve the wider community, while training staff to be entrepreneurs in selling agricultural information.

One-stop information shop

The solar panels are connected to a series of rechargeable cells (© Georgina Smith)
The solar panels are connected to a series of rechargeable cells
© Georgina Smith

The Chinyunya centre, set up in 2006 with support from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), is a typical telecentre, offering internet and radio access, photocopying facilities, mobile phone charging and credit sales, and hard copy brochures and factsheets on good farming practices. Its impressive expanse of solar panels is connected to a series of rechargeable cells, leading to a monthly power bill of just 100,000 Zambian kwacha (US$21) for battery water.

Manager Samson Chinyonga is pleased with the services the centre offers. "Farmers come to ask for information like how to rear chickens, what chemicals to spray and how to look for markets," he says. Chinyonga recounts the story of Kanaveta Banda, a local farmer who came to Chinyunya telecentre to look up poultry farming on the internet and has since started rearing chickens for the local market. And there's a group of women, who discovering that chilli is a high yielding, hardy crop with low production costs, have since started cultivating the spice for sale in the capital Lusaka.

Closing the digital divide

SATNET provides training to managers of 30 such telecentres nationwide, each with an average membership, typically, of 800 smallscale farmers. "Telecentres are the channel of information for rural communities which bridge the digital gap," says Mulozi. He acknowledges that there are challenges - making people aware of the resource now in their midst, for instance. "The infrastructure in this community is new, so people look at the computers as very strange machines. It is sometimes difficult for farmers to understand their importance."

Training is paying off, and now 73 members are visiting the centre just to practise using computers and get used to the technology. Contact details of visitors are noted on entry so that they can be alerted to future training opportunities.

Calvin Kaleyi, spokesman for the Zambia National Farmers Union, believes that while only a minority of people in the country have access to the internet, information centres are hugely beneficial to local communities. "There are other, more traditional ways of spreading information," he says. "But when people are in a big group, usually they are not that effective. At the information centres, small groups of people ask specific questions." However, a lot more has to be done to help farmers access the internet in the future, he adds.

A policy of expansion

Rows of mobile telephones sit recharging in the Chinyunya community telecentre (© Georgina Smith)
Rows of mobile telephones sit recharging in the Chinyunya community telecentre
© Georgina Smith

To that end, SATNET is developing a policy implementation strategy with partners including the global development network PANOS Southern Africa and the knowledge-sharing organisaiton eBrain Forum of Zambia to expand its telecentre network. In particular, it seeks to address the relationship between public institutions and the private sector in delivering technology. "If there are good partnerships nationally, then things work well, with transparency in service delivery," says Mulozi. "But we do need more funding towards training and technical support facilities."

Offering an even wider range of services, specifically targeting the needs of rural communities, is likely to be an important next step. At Chinyunya, for instance, farmers are planning to develop a crop storage facility at the centre, where they can bulk their grain or vegetable produce as a cooperative and, using their newly-gained ICT facilities and skills, find the best prices available.

Chinyonga is convinced that telecentres hold the key to empowering future generations, and while he emphasises that improved staff training is necessary to equip farmers with timely and accurate information, he says: "Telecentres are an excellent idea. They serve as a vehicle of development for rural communities by empowering them with ICT skills and reducing the digital divide between the rural and urban community."

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: June 2011

 

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