Reviving Our Agriculture Sector Might Require an Aggressive Inclusion of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs)

Dr. Darren Wilkins

A while ago, I wrote a post on my Facebook page regarding the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in Agriculture. I began that post by asking the following question: "Are we going to have a problem getting people to go back to the soil?" That question was based on an observation made during my journey to speak at an event, somewhere in rural Liberia. 

When I arrived at the event where I was the guest speaker, I had a change of mind after seeing the audience (diverse group of educated and uneducated folks). I suddenly decided not to read the prepared speech but rather, do a "YANABOY Parlance" (speak extemporaneously and in colloquial) to my audience. A prepared speech I surmised, would only bore the audience and deny me the opportunity to get my message across effectively. So, in my "Yanaboy Parlance", I chose to be "BRUTALLY HONEST" about my observation regarding the declining agricultural activities in rural Liberia. I was unequivocal about the fact that more farmers are now going toward mining sector (God and Diamond), preferring to buy food from neighboring countries or from Monrovia, rather than grow their own. 

Before I go further, let me provide my definition of a "Yanaboy". A Yanaboy in Liberia refers to the young Liberian male who lives and understands the typical Liberian way of living, its hustle, trials, tribulations, etc. He makes an honest living usually by doing small-scale trading, deals, etc. This is just my own definition. Others might define it in a different way. But the context in which I used it refers to someone speaking in a way that the ordinary Liberian could easily understand. Now, let me tell you about my speech.

I started speaking by jokingly informing the farmers that while en route to their city, I could not find any farm products on the highway except PALM WINE and FIRE COAL (charcoal). I also noticed that IMPORTED RICE was the only rice sold in the area. "Why is this so", I asked. The overwhelming response was: "NO MONEY TO FARM." I said, "CHAY!!" You see, a few years ago when I was a kid, my siblings and I were shuttled through that area at the end of every school year, toward the town where my parents have their diamond mine. Upon our return to Monrovia, we would bring back a trunk full of farm products including "country rice", plantain, dried meat, etc. These days, you can only find PALM WINE and CHARCOAL along that route. What happened?

Methinks 98 percent of the FARMERS or "COULD BE" farmers have little or absolutely NO interest in farming anymore. I say this based on my observation and the assumption that they are now gravitating toward the MINING and TRANSPORTATION (motorcycle operators) sectors, which they have found to be more convenient, if not lucrative. Others run VIDEO CLUBS (whose proliferation is a result of low-cost generators and projection devices) to provide entertainment through EUROPEAN SOCCER (MEN/Boys) and NIGERIAN/FILIPINO movies (WOMEN/GIRLS). How can we get our people in the rural areas back to the soil?

During my speech which later became interactive, I began talking about mechanized farming and the role Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) can play to help them improve their lives and our economy. I informed them that the strategic application of ICTs to the agricultural sector offers the best opportunity for economic growth and poverty alleviation in Liberia. Food security, I reminded them, is paramount for the survival of us all; no doubt!

It is clear that Liberia's Agriculture Sector has been in decline over the past 30 years, and because of this, farmers have remained poor or have been constrained to venture into other areas, specifically mining and transportation. And those who continue to farm are still using the same methods used years ago which are manual and subsistence farming. But this can be changed through ICTs! 

Today, ICTs, especially mobile communications are being used in agriculture for high productivity, efficiency, etc. ICTs can play many roles in agriculture especially in post-harvest activities like marketing, transportation, packaging, food processing, etc. ICTs also help through Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for land-use planning, climate change adaptation, spatial analysis, better risk management, and financial services for farmers. Clearly, the strategic application of ICTs to the Agriculture Sector offers the best opportunity for economic growth and poverty alleviation in Liberia.

Mobile/Cell phones and radios (community, local and national radio broadcast) are the most commonly used ICT in rural households in Liberia. These two ICT devices when combined with other advanced ICTs can bring significant improvement in the agriculture sector, thus positively impacting our economy. Furthermore, the establishment of Community Information Centers or CICs that provide basic and advanced computer training, internet access, etc., for farmers and others in the agriculture sector is another way ICT can improve the sector.

Finally, if we are to revive and improve Liberia's agriculture sector, we must include ICTs as a driver and not just as a "luxury". And, to successfully use ICTs in this sector, we must increase awareness of its importance in the Sector and ensure that we provide connectivity (broadband) to the rural areas primarily through our Universal Access Program (UAP) or some other approach. We will need to build the capacity of those in the rural sector to enable them to leverage ICTs for the improvement of the sector. Indeed, to revive our Agriculture sector, we will need to start thinking out of the box or applying "blue sky" thinking in our approaches. No doubt, a paradigm shift could help revive the sector significantly; and it is needed sooner than later.

Until next week,

Carpe diem!!