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Zambia takes the ICT route to boost agriculture


01 September 2009

Timothy Kasonde

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The Zambian government plans to open rural telecentres using innovative communication infrastructure to help farmers access relevant information. The Mazabuka centre will engage local communities in use of ICT for socio-economic development through a two-way information flow.

Agriculture is the economic backbone for many Zambians especially in the rural areas; as such it plays an important role in the social an economic development of the country.

This sector accounts for a high proportion of Gross Development Product (GDP) and acts as the main source employment and income in the peri-urban and rural areas where the majority of Zambians reside.

According to the National Information and Communication Policy, the Zambian government has committed itself in making sure that ICTs are integrated in the agricultural sector reform process in order to contribute to the social and economic revival of the country.

It is of this fact that a Zambian non-profit and independent youth led ICT organization has embarked on a project to establish a public ICT facility in the rural town of Mazabuka.

Poor infrastructure

Much of the developing country’s rural areas exist below subsistence levels and remain impoverished because they have no access to basic infrastructure that is essential for economic growth and development.

Furthermore, basic infrastructure such as electricity and communications that are essential pillars for economic growth, are not yet part of the planning of most developing rural communities, even in wealthier developing countries landscape and geographic location still places huge limitations on access to the internet and World Wide Web (WWW).

In other words, the ICT rural-urban divide will continue to escalate in the African continent unless direct intervention by governments is made.

The Zambian government through the Communications Authority of Zambia (CAZ) has developed a strategy to fund rural tele-centres in order to harness the development of ICTs in the country.

“With the current ICT industry in Zambia most of the innovative projects are coming through, we thank the government for putting in place the ICT policy document and other technology for development strategies,” says Brian Mukuka Project Coordinator for the Wireless Digital Village Project (WDVP).

Connectivity

He explained that creating sustainable public access facilities in rural areas without management skills, connectivity or electricity is very difficult and usually requires outside expertise, expensive solar power and satellite bandwidth internet connectivity.

With Zambia Electricity Supply Co-corporation’s (ZESCO) fibre network spread through from Lumwana in the North Western part of Zambia through up to Livingstone –Southern Part of Zambia, the WDVP will also be integrate its internet connection in fibre internet connection.

“In addition there are few integrated initiatives which leverage local resources through the use of ICTs to help meet real development, for the time being we are going to use satellite internet connection then later we going to interconnect into fibre” Mukuka explained.

That is why project team identified a small town such as Mazabuka in Zambia where they are going to establish a modern telecentre in a bid to assist the local communities, the farmers, to promote sustainable social economic development in line with the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

“The project aims to implement a modern telecentre with an innovative communication infrastructure using Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) or and wireless connectivity and modern equipment such as computers, scanners, photocopiers and telephone services,” Mukuka explained.

Community and the project

He pointed out that the telecentre will help the communities to benefit from the ICT revolution by accessing information that is of specific relevance to their daily lives for their overall development process especially farmers.

“We would want to contribute to the development of ICTs and as a leading example of best practices in helping to address the digital divide,” Mukuka said.

The WDVP will implement a modern telecentre in Mazabuka and this will provide a platform for the delivery of local content, government and private sector information services as well as tele-health and education applications.

One of the objectives is to work with local the local community so that they develop human capacity to manage and maintain ICT equipment, create a integrated agricultural information systems on agro technologies and techniques, pricing and market information, for all information for all agro products in order to provide strategic information for farmers, government authorities, and other stakeholders at national, provincial and district levels.

Other objectives include undertaking ICT awareness campaigns for all types of farmers in the use of traditional and new ICT tools at all levels, developing and promoting ICT skills development among agricultural extension workers and farmers, developing a monitoring and evaluation system for the conversation and sustainable utilization of natural resources in agricultural production process.

"We want to engage the locals to develop human capacity to use ICTs for their development and also build the presence of existing radio stations and linkages with church activities in order to fully leverage the potential of the technologies and existing human resources thus helping to ensure sustainability,” Mukuka said.

He further pointed out that the project is expected to facilitate the local communities, agricultural officers and farmers in order to provide viable alternatives for the youth to seek employment within their rural towns.

He explained that the telecentre will promote two-way information dissemination to support the physical and social-economic planning process in the agricultural system.

“There is need to improve access to jobs in marginal communities so that we reduce the levels of helplessness and dependence on the state utilities, and be proactive in developing alternative communication systems for economic growth,” Mukuka explained.

He however said to run a modern telecentre effectively skills such as business support, content creation and technical support were required from qualified locals so that they train others on how to use the facilities.

Mukuka further said that the telecentre will provide free ICT training on different ICT skills so as to give a chance to the less privileged in the small town.

“Under training we have computer skills like operating systems, word processing, spread sheets and databases. Another aspect is content creation for community radio stations, project management training for community projects and Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) s,” Mulenga further explained.

ICT Infrastructure

A site where the telecentre will be situated has already been identified and the appropriate ICT infrastructure will include the integration of VSAT and wireless technologies.

The wireless technology is seen as an effective solution for rural connectivity in establishing a telecenter in the rural area. The 54 Megabits per second (54Mbps) 802.11g broadband wireless system enables data, Voice over Internet Protocol (IP) and video communications.

The telecentre will consist of a local area network of computers, phones, laser printers, scanner, photocopier, and fax machines. Provision is made for wireless links within the building. With a VSAT link in place local communities will be able to participate in an array of e-learning, e-health and e- environment programs.

Facilities to be used by the community include video conferencing, exchange on research and experience, tele-medical services for clinics and hospitals near the telecentre and tele-educational programs and the possibility of making phone calls over the Internet.
Mukuka explained that the WDVP is being supported by local businessmen, local ICT organizations and the private sector.

“This initiative is being supported by the local businessmen and that includes some private sector organizations. Nothing much is coming from the government but I’m sure at some point when we approach them properly they will support this initiative,” Mukuka explained.

And a youth from Mazabuka Anthony Banda says it will be good to have a telecentre in Mazabuka because the place was not technologically developed.

Deliberate policy needed

Banda who has just completed his O levels (High School) and hopes to study media and communication at the University of Zambia (UNZA) next year says lack of ICTs in rural areas was hampering the development of rural areas.

“I hope the project will be successful because we don’t have access to ICTs in our small town. Some of us want to search for information on the internet but you find that there are no cafes and there is no infrastructure in the rural areas hence we are forced to travel to the capital city where there is the availability of the internet,” Banda explained.

He explained that it was very difficult for the youth in his area to develop because of lack of basic knowledge on ICTs.

“There is need to have a deliberate policy by the government in making sure that high school leavers get skills in ICTs and the Zambian government under the Ministry of Education (MOE) needs to support that,” Banda complained.
And an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) consultant based in Lusaka Mcobrien Mulenga said there is need to support local initiatives that are undertaken by the youths.

Mulenga explained there is need for more ICT projects to be introduced so that Zambia as a country is seen to be working to bridge the digital divide.

Mulenga added that Zambia’s limitations in the ICTs include inadequate institutional infrastructure to facilitate the speedy expansion and access of ICT services to the people.

"ICT systems that have been installed in the country so far remain disjointed and fragmented while the ICT solutions have remained generally under-utilized," Mukuka lamented.

 
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