At the invitation of FAO, our CEO, Rohan Samarajiva, Research Manager, Nilusha Kapugama and I spent two days (April 3-4, 2012) in Bangkok participating in a regional FAO/ NECTEC workshop on the use of mobile technologies for food security, agriculture and rural development. The workshop brought together representatives from the agriculture ministries/ departments of 10 countries in Asia (Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam), FAO personnel as well as the private sector, including operators of Mobile Agricultural Information Services (MAIS).
LIRNEasia research on the use of mobiles by the poor as well as in rural development set the stage for most of the sessions. Rohan, presented the latest findings from the Teleuse@BOP surveys; Nilusha presented some findings from the agricultural micro-enterprise survey (growers & non-growers); and I talked about the lessons and challenges of the current crop of MAIS in the region. The workshop interactions, especially the working group discussions facilitated by Rohan and myself, were eye-opening.
Rohan has blogged about some of his first impressions. Some of my key take-aways are below:
Creating an enabling environment in telecom: There is still some work to be done in creating the right conditions on the telecom side, to encourage mobile agricultural information services. In India for example, telecom operators still charge about 70% of the revenue from mobile applications. This is not conducive to encouraging development of MAIS.
Creating a model for PPP: The majority of the knowledge and expertise on agricultural issues reside with government, yet it is dispersed over a multitude of institutions that vary by region of focus (national, regional, state) and/or by subject matter (different crops, etc.). The problem for MAIS operators becomes the negotiation of partnerships with each of these institutions. One of the recommendations from the working groups was to create a template agreement for each country that could enable state institutions to be nimble and thus reduce the bureaucratic red tape in obtaining the source data for these services.
Quality of information and accountability: This remains a challenge. It is difficult to hold MAIS operators to be accountable for the quality information they provide when some of the information from government institutions are themselves unreliable. For example RML in India and GGS in Sri Lanka have to collect their own market price information, due to the unreliability of the officially reported market prices. Irrespective, there is not enough attention being paid to the issue of the quality of the information being provided by MAIS and who is accountable for the advise being provided. One related issue is that the private MAIS operators have to have an editorial desk and/or panel of experts in decided which information/ advise to transmit when there is a difference in the advice from different state institutions. I am not convinced that this is the right long term solution to this problem.
Applications for department of agriculture personnel as well as extension work: Not enough attention has been paid to capacity and skills development of extension workers and agriculture department personnel with respect to the use of ICT applications. Since our lead scientist Sujata Gamage’s work on peer networking and communication as part of the K2I project, we have been very much interested on this issue with respect to agricultural extension and I am glad that addressing this deficiency was brought up at the workshop as one of the key recommendations.
Development of appropriate ICT systems within the departments themselves: There has been a recent trend towards agriculture ministries/ departments running their own MAIS. Often these are call-center operations. The problem being reported by them is often about the dearth of manpower to run these call centers. I fear that sufficient thought is not being given to the digitization of agricultural expertise through the use of learning databases.
The workshop proceedings are available HERE.