This paper describes the framework and development of the e-agriculture project Sauti ya wakulima, “The voice of the farmers” in Swahili. The latest scientific findings acknowledge that in order to find a sustainable way of producing food in the future, it will be necessary to understand agriculture as a complex system which, besides economic and ecological factors, also includes the social context of rural farming communities. Sauti ya wakulima adopts this vision by establishing an open and participative research process, in which a group of farmers living near Bagamoyo, Tanzania, uses smart-phones and a web platform to document their environment, and create thus a collaborative knowledge base.
DEFINING THE FIELD
E-agriculture defines an emerging field in which information and communication technologies (ICT) are applied to the improvement of agriculture and rural livelihoods. The term was introduced as one of the key areas of application of ICTs in the Plan of Action of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), celebrated in Geneva 2003. Mobile communication technologies are presently the main focus of e-agriculture. In Africa, where most of the development projects for agriculture are concentrated, Internet usage is still low, reaching about 13,5% of the population; yet it has grown 2.357% over the last ten years, almost five times more than the rest of the world (Internet World Stats, 2011). However, more than a third part of the population in Africa are cell phone owners, and this rate is growing fast (International Telecommunications Union, 2010). The original definition of e-agriculture and its more recent applications, tend to consider agriculture as a merely economic-productive activity, whose purpose in rural environments is to provide food security and alleviate poverty.
While these goals undoubtedly are crucial, agriculture should not be understood exclusively from an economic utilitarian angle. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology for Development Report (IAASTD, 2009) argues in favor of a fundamental shift in agricultural knowledge, science and technology, towards the acknowledgment of the multi-functionality of agriculture, understood as the interconnectedness and complexity of agricultural systems within diverse social and ecological contexts. The report identifies a strong social element of food production, which includes health, gender, tradition, social structures, and culture. While improving productive efficiency and access to information in rural agriculture are certainly key areas in e-agriculture, ICTs can also empower farmers in less obvious ways. Sharing and disseminating farmer-held knowledge, providing real-time, audiovisual evidence of practices affected by climate change, and expanding the farmers’ social networks are some of the ways in which an advanced e-agriculture platform can strengthen also the social context of rural agriculture. Moreover, mobile technologies allow for a multi directional communication throughout digital networks, thus opening the opportunity of integrating farmer-held information and observation into the local collection of expert agricultural knowledge. Given the vertiginous growth of ICTs in Africa, and the dropping international prices of smart-phones and tablets, experimenting with state-of-the-art technologies that go beyond the limitations of SMS
and voice services supported by basic GSM mobile phones is a realistic endeavor that can open new, more socially oriented areas of action within e-agriculture.
- Eugenio Tisselli, Juanita Schläpfer-Miller & Angelika Hilbeck, Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule), Zurich, CH
Full text (PDF) p. 145-150