High data charges stall agric revolution

Source: High data charges stall agric revolution | The Herald October 24, 2019

Leroy Dzenga Features Writer
Farmers in Zimbabwe have refused to be left behind by the technological wave gripping the world.

This has seen them adoptingf technological solutions with the hope of increasing production and efficiency in agriculture.

The good thing about technology is it allows the user to employ it in a manner relevant to their needs.

Understanding there was an extension worker shortage, Zimbabwean smallholder farmers embraced technology in a bid to address the information asymmetry in the sector.

The rollout of the innovations was delicately handled, piloting in a few areas testing the viability of the digital-based strategy in traditional communities.

Farmers from the Midlands and Matabeleland were among the first to enjoy benefits of mobile phone applications like Kurima Mari and Agrishare, which they say made their lives easier.

About 40 000 communal farmers in the country are estimated to be using electronic extension through applications for those with smartphones and text messages if they own feature phones (kambudzi).

Unfortunately, there is a threat which, if not mitigated, can reverse all the gains made in farmer digital literacy.

The cost of spending time on the internet has been punitive in recent months, making it difficult for the farmers to access the information which had been brought closer to their fields through technology.

For Esilinah Sibanda (57), a farmer from Silobela — a rural community 70 kilometres outside Kwekwe — the introduction of electronic extension made her life easier.

She uses Kurima Mari, an application distributed by Welthungerhilfe (WHH) — a German food aid organisation — in collaboration with the Zimbabwean Government.

Kurima Mari, which loosely translates to “growing money”, the application seeks to enable communal farmers to explore the commercial potential they possess as farmers.

“The application teaches us how to calculate our profits after we sell our produce,” Sibanda said.

The application has etched its place as part of many farmers’ toolboxes, albeit digitally.

“There are methods on budgeting for the money, I have been using this application for one year and I only call extension workers when I do not understand the terms used or when I need to try and modify the information I would have gotten,” she said.

Kurima Mari is partially free, it has free content but there is a component that requires internet connectivity and farmers have practically been locked out by high data charges.

Across networks one gig of data (daily) costs over $20.

A potato farmer will have to sell one pocket of their produce at current market prices to stay online for two days.

It takes 225 kilogrammes of potatoes for a potato farmer to spend a month connected to the internet through their mobile phone.

“There are books on the application which are free, but if you want to access videos and other updated information like current market prices, you need data.

“We try to stay online because if you go offline you miss out, but it has not been easy. At this rate you have to sacrifice something important to buy data,” said Sibanda.

Another farmer, Ms Bester Ncube from the same area, said her physical interactions with extension workers are somewhat limited.

“I learn a lot from the application, if an extension officer says they are not available, I just ask them for guidance on where I can get the information on my phone,” Ncube said.

Besides Kurima Mari, there have been a number of related platforms which have made lives easier for farmers.

There is AgriShare from WHH and Government, a mobile phone- enabled platform that links farmers without assets with commercial or private hiring services for production, processing and transporting.

Despite its promise in making lives easier for farmers in finding those who may have tools they need to perform specific tasks, the potential is being hampered by costs of connecting on the internet.

“The data is becoming an impediment, some of us do not always have money like big farmers. We struggle, sometimes you ask yourself if you should connect on the internet or buy sugar for the family,” Ncube said.

The pinch has not only been felt by farmers. Even extension workers are affected too.

They were beginning to get accustomed to dealing only with complex concerns but being taken back to explaining elementary concepts because the sources are now expensive to access.

Agritex, who are the public extension officers, are bearing the brunt.

District crop and livestock production officer in Kwekwe Virginia Samakomva said farmers may need assistance to stay abreast with trends in their respective fields.

“Data charges are obviously making it difficult for farmers to access information. If there is a way to subsidise farmers to ensure they access important platforms cheaply, it will be appreciated,” she said.

Isabella Mutero, an extension worker at the Exchange Irrigation Scheme and surrounding area, said she can access close to 80 percent of her farmers through her phone.

“The applications help us disseminate ready information to farmers. They carry information that covers almost every crop found here as well as  livestock, too. Some platforms like Kurima Mari go a step further to even give basic agricultural marketing concepts to farmers, something which was not readily available previously,” Mutero said.

It may be back to basics soon for them, as the fruits of innovation they were enjoying are wilting in the face of astronomic data charges.

“Before we even talk of the farmers affording the data, we as extension workers are not immune to these costs. We actually need more data for research so we can give farmers accurate information. It is getting difficult with each passing day and we hope there can be a solution or an allowance of sorts to finance our online presence,” said Mutero.

This does not, however, spell doom for the extension workers and the farmers they serve.

Extension workers have devised ways through which their farmers struggling to keep up with spiralling data costs or those without compatible phones stay abreast with developments.

What we do is we access content on the applications. In my area I observe what is happening and send out relevant coordinators in the district who are usually in a WhatsApp group. The coordinators then get that information and send it to farmers through text messages, so famers are not entirely in the dark,” Mutero said.

With over 1 000 farmers under her watch, she believes those that are not reached through technological means will be told verbally by their colleagues after electronically accessing the information.

The process through which farmers exchange information about their trade is called farmer-to-farmer extension, a practice which is likely to become relevant again, if mobile network operators continue reviewing data charges on a regular basis.

Those administering the technology believe the data price hikes warrant the improvement of available technology

Welthungerhilfe’s ICT in Agriculture coordinator, Tawanda Hove, said: “The cost of data is not what we can manage but what we are doing is to make the content richer so it is worth the investment. We also need to minimise updates to once or twice a month so there is no regular need to update the applications.”

As solution, Welthungerhilfe ICT for Development communications officer Nigel Gambanga suggested a solution which involves mobile network operators.

“I think the best approach at this moment would be to zero rate these applications. That way we can ensure that the belief which had been shown by farmers in electronic extension is maintained,” he said.

There have been efforts to increase productivity in the farming sector and this has involved the introduction of technological solutions.

But their usefulness is in question with the high costs attached to obtaining the information.

This inconvenience is, however, not exclusive to farmers as other sections of society are also affected.

The farming community is just the latest stakeholder group to raise alarm over the cost of communicating in Zimbabwe.

Even mobile network industry regulator Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) in its 2019 second quarter sector performance report noted a price-induced recession in mobile penetration.

POTRAZ recorded a 1,1 percent (91 000) decline in total active data and Internet.

Will something give or it is back to smoke signals?

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