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Internet and Communication Technologies Offer Agricultural Advancement in Cameroon

              Growth in Africa begins with agriculture, the president of the African Development Bank said last weekend. Farmers in Cameroon are increasingly taking advantage of information and communication technology to advance their businesses. But a lack of access to such technology, ability to use it and awareness of how to apply it to agriculture presents obstacles to its full usage. by Comfort Mussa  BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Agweig Pauline, 28, is a budding poultry farmer in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region. She says that unlike other young people her age, she has always had a passion for agriculture and has decided to pursue it in a unique way. “Growing up, I had a passion for agriculture,” she says. “However, I didn’t want to operate like the other farmers in my community.” Pauline started her poultry farm with no formal training. Instead, she relies on Internet research to find information on how to sustain her farm. Pauline says that too often, she hears farmers complain of poor harvests and of poultry farmers losing all their stock to diseases. She adds that society regards farming as a dirty job for illiterate people. ”I am a farmer, and I don’t want to be a reflection of this poor image people have of farmers,” says Pauline, who was trained as a journalist and still works as a copy editor for a local magazine. “That’s why, before venturing into it, I got all the information I needed. And I constantly update my knowledge by learning online.” She says she saved 200,000 francs ($400 USD) and then started her own farm. She named it Cielo Farm, which means Heaven Farm, to reflect her desire to practice agriculture without the normal constraints that her peers face. “Thus far, my farm is doing great,” says Pauline, nodding with a confident smile. “And other farmers even come to me for advice.” A growing number of farmers in Cameroon are employing information and communication technology to revolutionize their work. Technology experts say that advancements in technology offer farmers an array of options to improve their businesses. Still, challenges exist, such as a lack of access to technology, ability to use it and awareness of how it to apply it to agribusiness. “Growth in Africa begins with agriculture,” Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank, said last weekend during a visit to Washington, D.C. More than 2.6 billion people around the world directly depend on agriculture for their livelihood, according to SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, an international organization that promotes sustainable development to combat poverty. Global food demand is also expected to rise by 50 percent during the next 20 years. “But the productive potential of many smallholders and pastoralists remains untapped,” according to the organization. In Cameroon, the agricultural sector employs more than 60 percent of the active population and accounts for more than 40 percent of the gross domestic product, according to a document from the prime minister’s office. Information and communication technology is emerging as an attractive way to improve this dominant industry in Cameroon. Tantoh Dieudonne Nforba, 33, is a farmer in Nkambé, a small city in the Northwest region. He says that he employs various forms of information and communication technology on the job. With his mobile phone, Nforba exchanges strategic information with customers, other farmers, agricultural authorities, government figures and extension workers – field workers who serve as a link between the agricultural experts and researchers who develop new technologies and the farmers who implement them. He also participates in talk shows on the radio and TV to disseminate information about his produce and services. The Internet quickens communication. “Email allows me to communicate quickly with people all over the world,” he says. “For example, I interact with stakeholders around the world exclusively through email.” Email also enables him to contact volunteers. “My agriculture organization has hosted 34 international volunteers,” he says. “And email has been the fastest way to communicate with these volunteers before and after they visited Cameroon.” New platforms also enable him to connect with others around the world. “We also use GoToMeeting to hold online board meetings monthly,” he says. In addition to improving business, Nforba says that information and communication technology also reduces the loneliness attached to agriculture because farmers can work in the village and yet still connect with friends in bigger towns and even in other countries. Etienne Ndagha is the director of Afro Technology, an Internet technology company in Bamenda. He has also managed cybercafes as a network administrator and system manager. He says that information and communication technology plays an important role in agriculture, with various types of technologies bearing different strengths and weaknesses when applied to different aspects of the business. Fon Julius Niba, technical adviser on agriculture value chains in Bamenda for SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, says that improving agricultural business and achieving food security requires new levels of innovation. Information and communication technology can play a crucial role by enabling agricultural innovation systems and providing rapid and efficient means of sharing and accessing information across the entire agricultural value chain. Niba says that the use of information and communication technology as well as social media has become widespread in farming. Depending on farmers’ familiarity and access levels, they have various options – telephones, mobile phones, radios and the Internet – to improve their businesses. “In Cameroon, radio is still the cheapest and most efficient tool for spreading messages about a broad range of issues, like farming, social equality or daily life,” he says. As such, his organization executed a project in Cameroon from 2009 to 2011 to train local reporters to effectively report and disseminate information about nontimber forest products and markets on the radio. Radio programs also provided engaging platforms for farmers to call in during the programs and exchange views. The project is now over, but Niba says local journalists that were trained still continue to broadcast such programs to inform and engage the farmers in their communities. Still, he says that more needs to be done to increase farmers’ access to more sophisticated information and communication technology. “By increasing access to feedback mechanisms through the Internet or telephone, it will ensure effective two-way communication,” he says. Access to these types of information and communication technology presents a challenge, though, as not all farmers have mobile phones and computers. And of those who do, many have yet to use them to support farming. Niba says that most farmers who have mobile phones use them only as a social communication tool. He attributes this to farmers’ longtime dependence on extension workers and oral tradition to receive and pass on information about how to grow crops and raise livestock. It is also difficult to use information and communication technology on a large scale because sizable areas of the country are still not connected to phone signals or the Internet. Just four of every 100 people in Cameroon were Internet users as of 2010, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N. specialized agency for information and communication technologies. Illiteracy is also still widespread, especially among the older and younger generations in rural areas, which limits their full use of digital information and communication technology. Also, communication costs are high. Ndagha says that Cameroon, like most African countries, lacks a submarine communications cable to link it to the rest of the world. The country’s resulting reliance on satellite connectivity makes the cost of Internet high. He adds that accessing the Internet costs Cameroonians more than 10 times what it costs consumers in Western countries. But he says there are cost-effective ways of using information and communication technology. For example, some users can access their Facebook accounts from their handsets even if they don’t have an Internet connection. Nforba says he purchases airtime for his mobile phone, spending an average of 10,000 francs ($20) monthly and another 10,000 francs ($20) monthly for Internet access. Nforba says that he also faces constant electricity failures and power cuts, which make it difficult to charge computers and phones. Nforba adds that Internet connection is extremely slow in Nkambé. “I have to travel every month to Bamenda to be able to participate in online meetings and other online tasks that require fast Internet access,” Nforba says. Bamenda is a six-hour drive from Nkambe on rough roads. But even in big cities like Bamenda and Yaoundé, the nation’s capital, Internet is slow, Nforba says. Some local governments have set up telecenters, where villagers can learn information and communication technology skills and access the Internet. The average charge is 400 francs (75 cents) an hour to use the Internet at these centers. Attendants help users with questions such as where a symbol is located on the keyboard and how to attach documents to emails. For farmers like Pauline, information and communication technology is not a magic wand that will solve all the challenges that they face. For one, it can’t solve climate change, which affects her farming. Still, Niba says that these technologies can provide platforms for agricultural advancement. “ICTs remain key in linking smallholder farmers to market and enabling them to increase income from the sale of their produce and get information about innovations in the sector,” he says. Click here to read original post.