THE advancement of digital technology and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) presents an untapped opportunity to propel Zambia towards sustainable development and poverty eradication.
The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) 2015 Quarter 1 Report shows that mobile cellular subscription stands at 10,838,000 out of a population of about 14 million and mobile internet penetration has grown from 379,888 subscribers in 2011 to 4,315,056 subscribers in the first quarter of 2015.
While acknowledging the existence of double-subscription for some individuals, these figures show that mobile telephony and mobile internet penetration are growing so fast, confirming it as a channel that can be used to foster learning and knowledge sharing, networking and participation for sustainable development, including in the agriculture sector.
The role of ICTs in enhancing progress towards sustainable livelihoods cannot be overlooked. The agriculture sector which is a major source of livelihood for the majority of the rural mass, faces numerous challenges such as delayed input delivery, lack of markets for alternative crops, and almost non-existent extension services among others.
ICTs have the potential to increase learning, knowledge sharing and networking among farmers and between farmers and experts to increase productivity, sustainable livelihoods and poverty reduction. PSAf believes that the use of ICT platforms and tools can create opportunities for the poor and marginalised communities to engage with each other as well as with experts and policy makers to address some of these challenges thereby enhancing the sustainable agriculture industry towards sustainable poverty eradication.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) presents evidence that ICTs are helping millions of smallholder family farmers in developing countries to gain better access to information, tools and technology that can transform their livelihoods.
For instance, ICTs help farmers sell and market their produce, boost their ability to cope with dwindling access to water, land and soil nutrients, and deal with the extreme climate events, pests and diseases that affect their crops. ICTs also reduce the time it takes to scan the market and make a sell.
Some countries have tapped into the ICTs space to advance the agriculture sector. For example in Kenya, many farmers use the M-PESA mobile payment system to pay for products and services, and to receive payments for their goods.
Farmers also use ICTs-based platforms like DRUMNet to link with each other and with various stakeholders like extension officers, and providers of marketing, financial and other information products and services. The use of these platforms has enabled the farmers to strengthen linkages with different stakeholders, cut on production costs and improve productivity.
Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) is working with marginalised small-scale farmers to support their use of ICTs to improve their agriculture. In Zambia, communities that have made efforts to tap into the potential of ICTs have also realised positive results and increased productivity.
For example in Itezhi Tezhi District, Central Province, farmers using the social media and local radio platform ITT FM 91.1, have been able to interact on matters affecting them, helping draw attention of policy makers such as the local district commissioner and area member of Parliament to their needs. The farmers are part of an online discussion platform on Facebook where their issues are tabled and discussed.
The views of farmers on this online platform have become the official views of local farmers in the local news programmes of the local community radio station ITT FM and national news outlets like the National Agriculture and Information Services (NAIS).
The limitation has been the lack of farmer-relevant online applications and tools on the supply-side of things.
There are several innovative ways in which the potential of ICTs could be exploited once there is effort both on the supply and the demand side. The gap remains that Zambia has not yet adequately tapped into the opportunities presented by this growth.
There are limited online applications, resources and unfavorable ICT environment for sustainable rural development. It is important to note some positives in this regard, where banks like Zanaco have mobile payment platforms such as E-Cash and Xapit, while mobile phone companies also run mobile money accounts that allow users to transact using their mobile phones.
However, there are still challenges on the supply-side where there are few service providers embracing such platforms, and on the demand-side, where mobile telephony is underutilised and underappreciated in terms of its potential to propel development.
If more of these ICT solutions are tailored to the needs of smallholder family farmers and put within their reach â€“ especially the women who form the bulk of this group â€“ then their agriculture can rapidly move from being a subsistence activity to a successful and sustainable business.
The author is the executive director of Panos Institute Southern Africa.