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Bridging the rural digital divide

The speed of technological change offers many people a 'fast-track' to information, self-improvement and enhanced status. For many others though, deprived of access to modern communication networks, the prospect is not a fast-track but a cul-de-sac, a development dead-end devoid of access or opportunity. Nationally and globally, a very high proportion of the latter group are rural people, and it is belatedly being recognised that since rural development is a prerequisite of national development, and that no development can be driven without communication, this lack of communication access must be made good.

Farmers in particular need help. Under pressure to increase their output, to diversify their production, adopt new farming systems, and often to do all this at ever-decreasing sale prices in order to compete in national and international markets, they desperately need to learn of options beyond the traditional practices inherited from the past. Yet in all but a favoured few countries, farmers are amongst the least 'in touch' with the scientific, social and economic changes that already, or soon will, affect their livelihoods.

Rural radio 'live' in rural community near Pretoria, South Africa
Rural radio 'live' in rural community near Pretoria, South Africa

Not by silicon chips alone

Much has been said and written about the potential to harness the prodigious capacity of the silicon chip to create, manage and make available information at great speed, across great distance, yet at little cost. It has been suggested that the internet offers exciting possibilities but, while the technical means to reach such people on 'the wrong side' of the communication gap is available, technology alone is not the answer. Even allowing for the provision of hardware and infrastructure (PCs, electricity and secure storage), whose responsibility should it be to provide and regularly update the information needed by rural people? And to do so in their multiplicity of languages and reflecting the requirements of varied local soils, weather and crop varieties?

One suggested way forward is to provide a service to the mediators of information and advice, the extension staff, subject matter specialists and animal health officers, who are usually literate in the national language(s) and have the education and training to interpret data for local application. This is also true for broadcasters and journalists, who have an important role in complementing and supporting extension, and who also can benefit from access to the internet. It is timely that a recent FAO publication, The one to watch: radio and ICTs, features case histories of how the new technologies are complementing and enhancing the impact of a mature technology, radio. Combining the strengths of established and new media may be an important part of closing the information gap.

Stephen Rudgard, Chief of the FAO group that deals with outreach and capacity building, believes that bridging the gap demands two priorities: first, as well as developing appropriate methodologies and tools for disseminating and managing information, human capacity must be strengthened so that rural service providers acquire the knowledge and skills they need to use the new technologies. Second, since this cannot be achieved by any one organisation, partnerships need to be built among governments and institutions, the private sector, NGOs, the extension fraternity, and farmers associations to recognise and act collaboratively on what needs to be done.

Problems remain. One is the very high cost of internet connectivity in most of the most needy countries: whereas in the US it costs 1.2 per cent of average monthly income for monthly internet access, in Bangladesh the cost of access is 191 per cent of monthly income and in Nepal it is 278 per cent. Indeed the cost is so high that even government ministries frequently struggle to maintain internet access, and disconnection due to failure to pay outstanding accounts is all too common. Then, at a human resource level, there are still middle ranking and senior politicians and agricultural officers who are not computer-literate, and many of them consequently do not recognise how the new technologies could enhance the outreach and effectiveness of their staff and their ultimate clients, the rural people.

But, while it is easy to be disappointed and even pessimistic, the success of mobile telephony even in rural areas, offers grounds for optimism. If governments can provide the enabling environment, the private sector can finance the infrastructure and illiterate rural people can readily master telephone technology, there is no reason why the digital rural divide should remain. However, it does require government commitment, the full participation of rural people themselves, and a clearly thought out strategy for putting in place both the technology itself, and the skills to use it. This should target information mediators, whether publicly employed extension agents, private service providers or community based organisations. A second vital pillar in the bridge across the digital divide will be a 'marketing' campaign to bring home to many more rural people how they can exploit the new sources of information. If both can be achieved, the benefits could be universal.

Date published: May 2004

 

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The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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