Sunday, June 8, 2014

Empowering Farmers Through Connecting to Market Through ICT in Bangladesh -Mohammad Taherul Islam*

Brief Description
Accounting for 18.87% of the GDP, agriculture and rural economy play a strategic role in accelerating economic growth and alleviating poverty in Bangladesh. When forward and backward linkages are taken into account, the agriculture and agribusiness contribution to GDP is estimated at about 35%. In a country, where 60% of the workforce is absorbed by agriculture, farmers’ needs come as a priority when envisioning the country’s future. “e-Agriculture” is an emerging field where Information and Communication technologies or ICTs (Radio, TV, Cell Phone, PDAs, PCs) can help farmers boost productivity by giving them access to vital information, such as weather forecasts, crop advice and market pricing, empower them by establishing linkages with policy makers and promote growth or agri businesses and rural enterprises by connecting the country with the international market. The MLP concept has been developed with the vision of utilizing the benefits of ICT and the huge opportunities that internet provides as a development enabler for rural people. The Market Linkage Program (MLP) is online information and trading portal for agricultural products. Access to market (information and transaction) for the farmers is a major constraint in Bangladesh which causes financial loss and hinders improvement in livelihood process. The core purpose of MLP is to address the needs of farmers for marketing (selling) their produces at fair price and also to provide updated price and market
information to them. The platform will act simultaneously as a virtual market place for actors in the value chain including farmers, local traders, wholesale/retail traders, bulk buyers and also physical service facilities through telecentres / information centres.
* Assistant Divisional Engineer, Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited

Fig 1: Market Linkage Program (MLP) Model Through this service sellers will be able to sell their goods without going to the physical market. Likewise, buyers will be able to search for their desired items available from all over the country over the internet. The scope of the service includes online negotiation and ordering system for agro commodities along with secure mobile payment mechanism built within the system. Mobile based instructions will go to the bank system for online fund transfer. Agents will work as the human interface between sellers and buyers in order to ensure smooth delivery of goods form end to end. Sellers will be able to withdraw money at any time from ATM booths, banks, cash-out agents or POS outlets. The platform will be accessible from multiple access points such as Community Information Centers (CICs), mobile phones or any point with internet connectivity which will make it more convenient for users. Other than online trading opportunity, MLP will also provide various value added services such as market information, price information, database of various chain actors, Quality Control, demand-supply data etc.
The MLP is to remove trade barriers in the existing agriculture value chain in Bangladesh. The broad objectives of empowering farmers through connecting to market through ICT in Bangladesh are:
l. Fostering rural prosperity and grassroots level development by empowering farmers with information, knowledge and training;
ll. Developing a decentralized, localized and non-human based extension program with proper management and efficient delivery;
lll. Promoting, supporting and enhancing rural farm and non-farm enterprises;
lV. Mainstreaming ICT in the areas of agricultural research, development, education, extension and training;
V. Empowering farmers through creating opportunity to access wider markets by utilizing the mobile phone, internet and other ICT tools as a development enabler;
Vl. Facilitate framers an alternative market channel to address their demands for selling their produces in fair prices;
Vll. Facilitate various value added services for agro-products;
Vlll. Establish e-trading system in agro-commodity trading in Bangladesh;
lX. Reverse the supply driven market system into a demand driven one.
ICT Pathways to Poverty Reduction as Empowering Like Farmers Model With that in mind, “e-Agriculture Vision 2025” envisages a Bangladesh where:
• The village population would still be heavily dependent on agriculture for income and employment, but productivity would have increased through diversification as farms apply productivity-enhancing technologies and environmentally-friendly technologies.
• Commercialization and Agri-business would be less vulnerable to agronomic and market risks.
• The number of rural non-farm (backward/forward linkage) enterprises would grow, though most would remain small. Most enterprises may be in trading and services with small-scale manufacturing to strengthen backward and forward linkages to agriculture locally.
• Farmers would be economically active, nationally organized, and socially conscious and have a voice in policy formulation.
Priority Areas for Vision Implementation of Empowering Farmers
In order to implement the vision, this document identifies seven priority areas and explores role of ICT.
1. Human resource development
New and emerging technologies such as those involving integrated crop management and improved nutrient balance are increasingly becoming complex and location specific. Literacy lessons for farmers, combined with computer courses can facilitate agricultural education and training. ICT can also play a vital role in women empowerment. Telecentres can create jobs for women and promote women-run enterprises through which, they can earn money by offering their information and communication services to fellow community members.
2. Research and Development
Use of ICT in research and development relate more to the applications and uses to which the ICTs are put, the ways they are organized and the ways in which ICTs are embedded in the wider policy, research and outreach work of research institutes. It is important to devise appropriate frameworks that agricultural research institutes in Bangladesh can use to ensure that they most effectively apply ICTs and knowledge to achieve their goals and objectives. Developing a shared vision, identify key information and knowledge processes and devising organizational structures are likely to be critical elements in such strategic frameworks.
3. Rural Finance
ICT innovations such as a personal computer connected to the internet, an automated teller machine (ATM), a point-of-sale (POS) device located at a local retail or postal outlet may be less expensive to establish than branches located in rural areas and more convenient for customers. The proliferation of mobile services in Bangladesh has created a unique opportunity to provide financial services over the mobile network (ex: flexiload). Remote mobile loan payments can be initiated using short message service (SMS), also known as text messaging, and wireless application protocol (WAP) technologies.
4. Extension Service
Extension organizations have a key role in brokering between communication technologies, providers of those technologies and services, and the client groups they serve. Extent workers, equipped with ICTs add tremendous strength to already existing wide rage of service. Some of those strengths include: o A new range of additional media that can be part of the communication for development “mix” of traditional and/or appropriate media.
o Bottom up articulation and sharing of information on needs and local knowledge; o Increased efficiency in use of development resources because information is more widely accessible; o Less duplication of activities o Rapid speed of communication - locally, nationally and globally o Reduced communication costs in comparison to other available communication choices
5. Agribusiness
ICT can serve to bridge the digital divide and provide relevant business and market information to rural areas to reduce their isolation and foster new income-generating activities in the agribusiness and other non-farm activities by improving communication linkages between growers, processors and retailers for a better transfer of knowledge and technology, developing forecasting of market prices and disseminating prices to producers etc. Individuals or groups in geographically based ICT enabled communities may find themselves connected to one or more different forms of online communities. Online participation can lead to greater face-to-face participation with the geographic community. Relationships therefore form in both directions, with one potentially increasing the livelihood of the other. Such interactions have implications for the evolution of nature service delivery by e-Government and the growth of new agribusiness products to consumers and communities.
6. Natural Disaster
The consequences of natural and man-made disasters and the vulnerabilities to which populations are exposed can be mitigated if they are targeted proactively. Information and communications technology (ICT) can potentially play a pivotal role in disaster prevention, mitigation and management. Remote sensing for early warning is made possible by various available technologies, including telecommunication satellites, radar, telemetry and meteorology. ICT encompasses both traditional media (radio, television) as well as new media (cell broadcasting, Internet, satellite radio), all of which can play a major role in educating the public on the risks of a potential or impending disaster. Furthermore, ICT plays a critical role in facilitating the reconstruction process and in coordinating the return of those displaced by disasters to their original homes and communities.
7. Value and Promote Social Capital
Through access and effective use of ICT individuals and communities have a greater opportunity for engagement with others, broadening their understandings and building bonding, bridging and linking capital. Greater participation in communities is assumed to contribute to stronger social capital within the community at the local, state, national and global levels and hence contributes to improved economic and social outcomes.
Enabling Policy Environment
Although the National Agriculture Policy of Bangladesh does not currently include a national integrated ICT strategy, most entities, however, within the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock (Training, Research and Development) have their own vision, strategy for ICT. At the top level, the importance of ICT development is recognized and supported. In order to put an e-Agriculture enabling environment in place, the development and implementation of various e-Policies and e-Strategies should always remain supreme in the processes. These policies should:
o Build capacity of rural stakeholders and extension workers in use and application of ICT o Enhance farmers’ and producers’ access to market information and information on farming techniques and practices.
o Enhance farmers’ access to rural finance thus promote rural enterprises. o Improve dissemination of and access to scientific and technical information. o Enhance access to statistics and other types of information policy and decision-making. o Develop virtual communities/networks for information and knowledge exchange between rural stakeholders, as well as for their empowerment through participation. o Encourage Pubic-Private Partnership especially in the areas of human resource development, extension and agribusiness promotion.
Priority Actions
A vision reflects people’s aspirations, their potential for growth and development, and lays out the efforts needed to fulfill the vision. Therefore, in order to attain the full potential of a nation that is depicted in the vision we need to prioritize actions which would mobilize initiatives from different levels of public and private sectors in a focused manner
Community-Based Information Center
Leverage the existing infrastructure of Union Parishad, IPM/ICM clubs and/or other COBs to set up integrated digital information centers for farmers. These community-based information centers would provide a platform for local public and private organizations that are working in the field of agriculture to come together and offer coordinated support and service to the agriculture community. This could also be a venue for male and female, young and old farmers, fishermen and livestock owners to interact and lean together. Although seemingly negligible, these would afford the villages a voice that can be heard at a distance, and if sustained, carry prospects for altering previous relationships with extension workers, traditional communication systems and modes of learning that are usually provided top-down. Within the AICC network, farmers from the different pilot sites would be able to share indigenous information, serve as each other’s “experts” and learn from each other. Some of the perceived benefits farmers could receive through an AICC are listed below.
Farmers’ Call Centre
Establish call centres to address the need of the farming community making use of increased tele-density and Information Technology. Call centers will provide professional help, information and real-timem solution available to farmers at their doorstep, on a subsidized or toll-free telephone number. The content/expert advice may be provided by Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock while the physical infrastructure of the call centers may be set up in partnership with private sector players.
Radio/TV Programs
Improve quality of existing radio and tv agriculture related shows and introduce new programs in the form of talk shows, farmers’ phone-in programs in the public channels/stations. Strengthening partnership with private channels to procure agriculture related programs and broadcast using public mediums will also be initiated. Coordination shall be improved to motivate and strengthen performance of various media personnel including news reporters, producers, anchors, working in the field of agriculture
Agriculture Database
Create a electronic database, which compiles and collates the actual location specific need of farmers and classifies it in an intelligent format for use by decision makers, researchers, traders and industrialists. The database will also trap the traditional knowledge systems available with the farming community to enrich the knowledge bank in agricultural sector and their application in the farmers’ fields.
Agriculture Encyclopedia
Develop a dynamic e-Agriculture encyclopedia for use by farmers, agriculture extension workers, agro-input dealers and various other stakeholders, which will also provide an opportunity for the scholars and agriculture scientists to play a dynamic role in the transformation of Bangladeshi agriculture to a sustainable one.
Ensure better coordination amongst service agencies and research organizations within Ministry of Agriculture. Develop methods to monitor and evaluate effectiveness and efficiency of extension service and all layers of information flow through ICT.
Expected Results
The goal of the Market Linkage Program is to integrate the existing agro-value chain actors and make them a part of an online based service platform. The direct benefits expected from these empowering farmers through connecting to market through ICT in Bangladesh are:
l. Most of farmers will be directly and indirectly benefited through the Market Linkage Program;
ll. An inclusive and efficient online platform for direct upstream sales opportunity for farmers and other value chain actors;
lll. Online database/portfolio of local agro-value chain actors;
lV. Develop a process to ensure easy access to price information through which sellers will be able to compare different market prices and increase their bargaining capacity;
V. Increase internet uptake and ICT enabled services in rural areas;
Vl. Demand-supply data created which will help forecasting and integrated planning of production and harvesting;
Vll. Create an online network of producers and buyers and other stakeholders all over the country;
Vlll. MLP grading system established to ensure quality products;
lX. Involving intermediaries in MLP with defined value-addition role will bring transparencies and reduce their influences on price and procurement process.
X. Financial institutions involved and create new opportunities for various financial services for agro value chain actors, specially farmers;
Xl. Create new employment and business opportunities such as, MLP agents, business promoter, online trading centres etc.;
Xll. Awareness building among the stakeholders including other telecom operators, bulk buyers and value chain actors on using ICT enabled trading services;
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