ICT Enabling University Engagement with Smallholder Farmers
Many African countries especially those in sub-Sahara Africa are endowed with abundant natural resources, ideal for the development of sustainable agriculture. It is worth noting that nearly 80% of populations in sub-Sahara Africa depends on agriculture as the main source of livelihood of which, over 70% of these farmers are smallholder farmers. On top of abundant natural resources, African higher education sector is rapidly expanding providing platforms for creating new knowledge and technologies which are vital in enhancing smallholder agriculture. Despite the abundance of natural resources, favorable climatic conditions, and a vibrant higher education sector many of these countries continue to suffer from food and nutrition insecurity.
Smallholder agriculture continues to suffer from adverse effects of climate change, pests and diseases outbreaks, and limited access to quality farming knowledge, limited access to market information, unreliable wealth information, and poor extension services, among others. African higher education institutions continue to boast about cutting edge research on challenges facing farmers. However most of the research outputs from these institutions has had little impact on lives of smallholder farmers due to constrains in the current models of engagement between higher education institutions and smallholder farmers.
Majority of the African Higher Education Institution (HEI) especially those engaged in agriculture are part of their National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS). These institutions run active community outreach programs aimed at disseminating agricultural technologies, information and knowledge to farmers. The programs are mainly implemented through student internships, publications, engagement with extension officers and on-farm demonstration. Studies indicate that over 50% of knowledge dissemination done by HEI is through publications, yet majority of the farmers are illiterate, rendering the knowledge inaccessible to farmers who need it most. While other approaches of knowledge and information dissemination like on- farm demonstrations, student internships and extension officers provide an enriched engagement with the farmers, they are too expensive to conduct by the university in a sustainable way in terms of staff time and associated logistical costs. Besides, these approaches do not provide farmers with opportunities to raise specific information needs on demand, as activities are preprogrammed based on the university research agenda. Current HEI outreach models are characterized by weak stakeholder linkages, inappropriate knowledge packaging, intricate technical language and limited interaction with end-users of information among other constraints. Seeking for more relevance and impact, HEI including universities across the global are exploring innovative ways of enhancing engagement between researchers and farmers.
A number of studies across the globe continue to demonstrate that appropriate application of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) can enhance engagement of HEI with smallholder farmers, resulting into increased uptake of agricultural knowledge. The enhancement in engagement is in terms of improved knowledge packaging and visualization, timely availability of information, interactive collaboration, mutual learning, and impact assessment of knowledge shared, reduced costs of engagement, among others.
How Can HEI integrate ICT into their Community Engagement Programme?
Successful integration of ICT’s into any business process requires systematic planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. It is common in many African enterprises and organizations to hear of stories about failed ICT initiatives and most blames are placed on the technology. Yet, ICT integration requires realignment of business processes, orientation of staff to work in the new operating context, updating of management and governance framework to reflect the new institutional operating context, and availability of appropriate ICT infrastructure and associated utilities. Therefore, any HEI which intends to establish an ICT mediated engagement with smallholder farmers should consider the following;
A Community engagement Policy: The policy should clearly describe how community engagement is undertaken through the use of ICT. The policy should prescribe the intended services to be delivered to stakeholder such as farmers, the technology platforms upon which engagement is to be conducted, models of staff performance monitoring and reward, profile of stakeholders to be engaged, and measure of successful engagement, among others.
Appropriate ICT Infrastructure: HEI should invest in appropriate ICT infrastructure to support community engagement ubiquitously. The focus should be on platforms which provide self-service on the concept of anywhere, anytime and at the wish of the stakeholder. Opportunities to exploit open source systems and applications should be considered as these generally have lower total cost of technology ownership and have a wider user support base.
Monitoring and evaluation Mechanism: HEI should establish systems that can easily monitor and evaluate community engagement action implementation among stakeholders in real or near real-time. Technologies such as mobile applications which provide location services and GIS can be tapped into.
Establishment of Innovation Hubs with HEI: Most HEI especially those running engineering and ICT programmes can tap into the potential of their students to develop the relevant applications and technologies to support the community engagement. HEI should consider options of establishing internal innovation and incubation hubs to address their internal ICT needs in general.
Establishment of Collaboration and Partnerships: Successful implementation of ICT mediated community engagement largely depends on existence of effective collaboration between HEI and other stakeholders. Therefore, HEI should invest efforts to establish viable collaborations with stakeholders like government agencies focus is on agriculture, community leaders, telecom operators, and civil society organizations, among others.
Information Communication Technologies have the potential of transforming community engagement function of HEI in Africa if a systematic integration process is done as briefly highlighted in the forgoing text. The focus should be to exploit open source technologies and harnessing the expertise within HEI