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New Agriculturist: Focus on... How rice farmers benefit from ICT
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How rice farmers benefit from ICT

Imagine walking into an internet café and watching youngsters - bubbling with enthusiasm - taking delight in demonstrating the basics of computer use to their parents. The assumption, understandably, would be that they are demonstrating the latest computer game. But surprisingly for Dr Nag, Director General of the Mekong Department of the Asian Development Bank, what he found was something quite different.

What intrigued Dr Nag was that in this, one of the cramped Internet cafés that dot the roadsides in the impoverished rice-growing areas of northeastern Thailand, the kids were showing their parents pages from Rice Doctor, a diagnostic program developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to help rice farmers manage the pests and diseases that attack their crops. The kids were translating the relevant pages of Rice Doctor into Thai for their parents.

Computer-based learning often introduces interesting opportunities for learner interaction (IRRI)
Computer-based learning often introduces interesting opportunities for learner interaction

Although encouraged by this type of story, IRRI knows that rice knowledge rarely flows this directly to farmers. As a result, IRRI focuses its ICT and knowledge-dissemination efforts on the intermediaries - members of national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) and other partners such as NGOs - who run extension services. In other words, IRRI trains trainers, who then adapt institute research methods and recommendations to local conditions and relay them to farmers.

Why the Rice Knowledge Bank?

It is widely recognized that the timely and effective transfer of technologies and knowledge from researchers to farmers' fields remains one of the greatest challenges in developing world agriculture. All too often, new technologies fail to reach those who need them most - the farmers and their families - because of poor communication. Only by improving communication can farmers be provided with the better options that can help them improve their livelihoods.

Into this communication gap between research and impact has stepped the Rice Knowledge Bank (RKB), the world's first comprehensive, digital library of training materials on rice farming, and one of the first digital extension services for those who work with poor farmers.

What's in the RKB?

The RKB project sets its goals to provide information that is (1) focused, (2) credible, (3) value-added and (4) demand-driven. Why focused? An internet search on 'rice' results in over 13 million hits. Rather than search through this huge and somewhat random assortment of material, people can come to the RKB knowing that they will find materials relevant to 'rice training and extension'. This leads to credibility since not only are materials focused, they can be trusted: materials must pass through an internal clearance process before they are loaded on the RKB. The result is that only materials that have received the sign-off of the 'subject matter expert' appear on the site. The issue of 'value added' relates to the breakthrough format used in the RKB that sets a new standard in organizing material for easy retrieval. Borrowing the latest and best ideas from private-sector work in this area, the RKB offers users unprecedented access to rice knowledge and training information in a readily usable, searchable and standard format. The final characteristic of the RKB is that it is demand-driven reflecting the RKB development team's constant response to user feedback. An important part of this process is the use of site statistics, discussion boards and user feedback, which allows the RKB team to home in on key search words and areas of particular interest and provide information in response to these demands.

RKB content falls into five categories: (1) practical field diagnosis and management tools (such as TropRice and Rice Doctor), (2) reference manuals, (3) fact sheets, (4) training materials and (5) e-learning courses. Within each area, objects can be cross-referenced and combined with items from other areas. For example, the Rice Grain Quality course, which is located within e-learning, taps into objects from other areas, such as various reference materials and the decision-support tool TropRice, which resides in Field Diagnosis and Practices.

RKB use

IRRI aims to make this dynamic internet portal the world's central repository of rice knowledge and training materials. The knowledge bank has made a good start by capturing much of IRRI's 42 years of rice research in digital form, which allows it to be shared, searched and used in any part of the world with internet connectivity. And, for those without ready internet access, the RKB is built to run on CD-ROM. From either source, users can easily call up the material in a form ready-formatted for printing, using a concept known as single-source publishing.

The RKB has had over 4 million hits since its launch in September 2002 (not including internal IRRI or CD use) representing over 120,000 distinct users, and it's making a difference. At the institute level, scientists are now using the RKB to prepare materials for traditional classroom courses; rather than reinvent the wheel, they search the bank for their topic, see what has already been written and then make necessary adjustments. When their course is complete, the revised materials are uploaded into the Training Materials area, where it is stored for use during the next training. This saves hours of preparation time and ensures that training messages are delivered consistently.

National programs are also benefiting. As Anita V. Antonio, a staff member from the Philippine Rice Research Institute comments, "The Rice Knowledge Bank is a big help to our organization. We use it constantly in training, and it assists our extension workers in the field who are attending to the different problems of the rice farmers, especially in the area of principles and practices of farm management."

Another exciting new development is the growth of the country sites, that provide country-specific information, often in local languages. For example, material in Bahasa (Indonesian) was recently tracked as being one of the most highly accessed files. Presently, the RKB has country sites for Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Written by: Mark A Bell, Peter Fredenberg, Albert Atkinson and David Shires, IRRI

Date published: July 2004


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