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Role of information tools in food and nutrition security

Africa's reducing capacity to produce adequate food for its population is cause for great concern. The number of malnourished in Africa has increased by 15 per cent since the World Food Summit of 1996, has doubled in the last three decades, and now totals more than 200 million. How to reverse this calamitous trend must be a priority issue. One approach being considered, perhaps belatedly, is to improve the communication of information that could help improve both food production and the sanitation and hygiene that would increase the nutritive value of food consumed. This would also include evaluation of all the communication channels and information and communication technologies (ICTs) for disseminating appropriate information and knowledge to stakeholders ranging from policymakers to smallholder farmers.

In November 2004, CTA (Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation in EU-ACP countries), in collaboration with the Government of Mozambique and the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, organised a week-long seminar in Maputo on "The Role of Information Tools in Food and Nutrition Security in ACP-countries". Points of View reflects some of the main issues discussed and sentiments expressed by the participants, who represented the main stakeholder groups: decision-makers, experts in food and nutrition security, regional and international organisations, NGOs, and farmer organisations of ACP and EU countries.

The food and nutrition challenge

Africa has experienced declining food production per capita, growing marginalization within the global economy, serious degradation of its natural resources, epidemics of HIV-AIDS and other diseases, and evident conflict that has uprooted large populations in most of its sub-regions. Most rural markets for staple foods are thin and limited. Africa now imports food to the tune of $22 billion/year, to which $1.7 billion in food aid needs to be added.
Eric Tollens, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium

Ethiopia is a country that survives on charity, exports financing only 35 per cent of imports. Four to five million of the population are chronically food insecure, while a further six to seven million are insecure when weather is unfavourable. And, per capita food production is on the decline. Insufficient food impacts on future capacity to produce food and, if there is 'business as usual', those in food deficit will increase from 18 per cent to 80 per cent of the population by 2030.Befekadu Degefe, University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

A major challenge for sub-Saharan Africa is lack of political will and commitment. Yes, there are encouraging signs in some countries but, at current rates of progress, it will take decades to achieve the changes needed. This is why this seminar is so important, it goes beyond communicating with food producers; we must educate the policymakers.
Isatou Jallow, Executive Director, National Nutrition Agency, The Gambia

We are living at a time of exciting and unprecedented progress. But tragically there are so many, particularly in the rural areas who have nothing to put on the table. We have to ask, 'What is going wrong?' Before we talk of communication, let's ask, 'Who is growing the food?' It's the women isn't it? But, what kind of women? Not like me, in a suit! They are illiterate. They cannot count. But they are excellent managers. Despite this, they cannot grow enough for their families for the whole year. Most of these women are isolated in their horizons. These are the people who are feeding Africa. But they live where there is no infrastructure, no roads, no electricity, poor or no schools. We need to break the 'rural apartheid' in so many rural areas. Infrastructure must be improved. We need more schools to improve female literacy, in particular. We need communication channels that are accessible and affordable, and in local languages.
Graça Machel, President, Foundation for Community Development, Mozambique

The potential of ICTs to inform and educate

Falling costs of information technology opens a window for Africa. In Africa we do not yet enjoy ICTs to improve our standard of living but we recognise their potential. ICTs can accelerate development in many areas, not least in training a critical mass of people to effect change, for market information, and in exchanging ideas between countries in a region.
President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique

As well as the new ICTs, there are also the traditional media: village theatre, songs, poetry, proverbs and story-telling. These still have an important role to play, and should be incorporated into radio and TV.
Jean-Pierre Ilboudou, Extension, Education and Communication Service, FAO

It would be wrong to view ICTs as either conventional or new; there seems to be the potential for great synergy between the two.
Bernard Kouassi, Executive Secretary, SADOC Network

The lack of information represents a significant impediment to market access, especially for smallholder farmers; it substantially increases transaction costs and reduces market efficiency. The Marketing Information System involves harnessing the power of modern information and communication technologies to empower farmers to access markets more efficiently and profitably.
Adrian Mukhebi, Chief Executive, Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange

In Uganda, liberalisation of laws affecting telecommunications in 1997 opened the way for private investment, leading to a second fixed-line provider and three cellular telephone providers. As a result, the tele-density has risen from 1 per 1000 to 1 per 100 people, and the situation is being exploited by farmers' associations through radio, tele-centres and the internet. The greatly enhanced communication is now providing support in agriculture, sustainable livelihoods, extension and farmers' field schools.
Andrew Temu, Sokoine University, Tanzania

Using ICTs for better communication

Many graduates, even in the food and nutrition sector, graduate without skills in IT and Information Communication Management (ICM).
Andrew Temu, Sokoine University, Tanzania

There is a need to invest in skills and human resources development for an appropriate exploitation of the ICTs. ICTs must be regarded as a tool. The use of these tools cannot be regarded as a luxury. There must be full knowledge of these tools at the various levels involved in food distribution.
Venancio Massingue, Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique

The main ingredient of good communication is to put the population at the centre of the process. All activities to do with communication must start with the needs of the different target groups, and we must make use of the right mix between social, institutional and educational media. We have to decide if we just want to inform or to change habits, and select media accordingly.
Jean-Pierre Ilboudou, Extension, Education and Communication Service, FAO

Africa has only 2 per cent of telephone lines, less than 1 per cent of internet hosts, 0.2 per cent of fax machines and 0.4 per cent of content on the Web. Further, the connection cost in Africa is 20 per cent of GDP per capita, compared with 1 per cent for high-income countries.
Professor Firmino Mucavele, Eduardo Mondale University, Mozambique

There are a phenomenal number of websites putting information in front of people. What we are looking at is a portal that gives access to the food and nutrition sites in Africa, to give African researchers and policymakers a one-stop multi-language site to achieve this: the Food Security and Policy Information Portal for Africa (FPIP).
Michael Weber, Michigan State University, USA

In the past, new ICTs have been for 'IT gurus' but they can no longer be relegated to experts because they affect us all. However, we must build confidence and security in the use of ICT. Some of us have cellphones but, because of lack of knowledge, we can make use of only 5 per cent of their potential.
Venancio Massingue, Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique

Current IT and ICM initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa have substantial external technical expertise. What is required is adequate local capacity in the area of ICM and IT. For these ICM policies to be sustainable, the attitude of the next generation of policymakers and managers must be changed.
Andrew Temu, Sokoine University, Tanzania

To achieve rapid uptake of ICTs, partnerships must be established with the ICT industry, such as satellite service and mobile communications providers, to overcome the challenges of remoteness. The main challenges are not necessarily of a technological nature, but include issues of organisation and attitude.
Venancio Massingue, Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique

We have to deal with politicians if we want our ICT to work... We academics fail to develop our messages in ways that the politicians understand.
Firmino Mucavele, Eduardo Mondiale University, Mozambique

Stakeholders must be able to identify obstacles that they face in implementing a new technology, and they will want to know what are the benefits they are likely to achieve. Marketing information is very much in demand, including quantity and quality of products available, preferences being shown by consumers, and the prices being offered at various markets.
Bernard Kouassi, Executive Secretary, SADAOC network

The messages to be conveyed to policy makers

No nation can afford to waste its greatest national resource, the intellectual power of its people. But that is precisely what is happening where low birth weight is common, where children fail to achieve their full potential growth, where micro-nutrient deficiencies permanently damage the brain, limiting performance at school.
Nutrition: Foundation for Development. UN SCN, 2000

Malnutrition haunts people throughout their lives, and impacts on the next generation.
Isatou Jallow, Executive Director, National Nutrition Agency, The Gambia

Africa lags behind, notably in its industrial development, because of lack of communication.
Firmino Mucavele, Eduardo Mondiale University, Mozambique

We are now addressing the true needs of our clients and Malians have access to the information that they require. Farmers get information before they go to market and are able to negotiate better prices. There has been an enlargement of the market to include Niger and Guinea.
Abdarame Traore, Coordinator, Projet Pasdima APCAM-MSU, Mali

The first failure is that governments don't communicate enough. When they have a successful agricultural project, the education and road improvements are made somewhere else! So we don't find any model villages where all the aspects are right. Let's have some places where all the factors for improvement are together.
Graça Machel, President of the Foundation for Community Development, Mozambique

Connectivity and access to telecommunications and communication facilities are being seen as a window of opportunity through which African countries can leap-frog their ailing economies into fast-moving information-driven economies, which could deliver the goods that eluded their citizens for many years. Under NEPAD, 12 major ICT infrastructure projects have been approved, with major funding - up to 30 per cent - by African governments.
Firmino Mucavele, Eduardo Mondale University, Mozambique

Date published: March 2005


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