(by Neil Marks)
Cradling sprawling agricultural lands never before ploughed, Guyana believes it can become the food basket of the English-speaking Caribbean; and a seismic shift in access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) might just help accomplish that.
“Seismic shift” in the sense that the use of ICTs is still new to Guyana, but the ICT sector is getting a caterpillar to butterfly transformation that would aid the development of the agriculture sector and feed the Caribbean, or at the least reduce its US$5 billion food import bill.
Already, simple technologies are raking in big profits for poor rural farmers.
In the past, lack of access to market information prevented farmers from simply knowing how to bargain with the so-called “middle-men” or wholesalers who come to buy their crops.
“It was easy for us to be ripped off; they would just come and call a price and we either had to take whatever they offered or leave the crops in the fields,” says Krishna Sewlall, a farmer of over 30 years.
His farmlands are located at Bath Settlement, West Coast Berbice, 67 miles from Guyana’s capital Georgetown, where his produce ends up at big municipal markets such as Stabroek and Bourda.
That exploitation all started to change in October 2011 when the Ministry of Agriculture teamed up with mobile phone company Digicel to launch a Market Information System.
Using their Digicel mobile phones, farmers send a text message to the number 1010 and what comes back is a text messaging detailing prices for vegetables at various markets and prices and product demands from exporters in the Caribbean.
Sewlall has been using the system since its introduction and he has seen the benefits to his family and those of the more 400 poor farmers who make up a neighbourhood farmer’s association where he lives.
“We are now in a position to bargain for a better price; the middle men can’t come and tell us the price for bora (a popular bean) is $400(US$2) when we know the price at Bourda doubles that. With the extra money, we can save more and to better equip our children to go to school.”
Why, he has even been able to tap into export markets, something he has not been able to do before!
Not just in Bath Settlement, all over the country, including the deep interior, where there is access to mobile phones, farmers are able to use the system to their benefit.
Noting the benefits and keen to create the enabling environment for the agricultural sector to maximise the benefits from ICTs, the government has asked the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help improve the system.
According to Lystra Fletcher-Paul, FAO Representative in Guyana, the project aims to enhance the capacity of the New Guyana Marketing Corporation (New GMC), which manages the system, to collect and analyse production data for non-traditional agriculture crops in a timely and consistent manner.
Further, FAO funding will go towards expanding the current market information system so that it is capable of providing appropriate, reliable and timely data for detecting price movements of agriculture commodities and for identifying market opportunities for farmers, agro processors and exporters.
Another goal is to develop a training guide to train extension officers, crop reporters and price collectors in the collection of crop production data.
The website of the New GMC is receiving an upgrade. Use of the website allows farmers and persons interested in marketing agricultural produce to get the updated market information.
But how are poor rural farmers able to access the website?
This brings into play the Government of Guyana’s One Laptop Per Family Programme (OLPF).
The project centres on key goals towards economic development, one of them being the use of “ICT as an enabler of the agriculture sector through better access to information and technologies.”
For example, the Programme’s website says access to the internet allows farmers to research best practices or source tools and equipment.
Launched towards the end of 2011 by then Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo, the goal of the project is to hand out 90, 000 laptops to poor families.
Internet access is not readily available in many communities, but the creation of special ICT hubs at specific locations allows families to access the internet, even in far-flung Amerindian areas.
Those who do not know to use the computer, including elderly farmers, are trained how to do so.
Targeted ICT Infrastructure Development
But the country is moving further ahead with the development of ICT infrastructure, spending US$32 million on an e-governance project, running a fibre optic cable from neighbouring Brazil through the interior, the home of Amerindian communities, and stretching across to the Atlantic Coast, where most of the population live and where agricultural activity is concentrated.
The project is expected to bear fruit this year, with the installation of more than 54 Long Term Evolution-Advanced (LTE-A) Towers across the country, along with computer banks being installed in each Amerindian Village.
Last year, a total of G$1.9 billion was invested by government on acquiring and installing critical ICT infrastructure.
According to Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh, this includes over 580 kilometres of fibre optic cable from Lethem to Georgetown, with five repeater stations along the route, constructing and commissioning the e-Government data centre, “and procuring the equipment and software for the LTE-A sites which is the latest in 4G wireless technology.”
“Several projects in the pipeline, that I know of, that will directly benefit the agriculture sector include the creation of a unified Land Information System, an E-Library system through which better educational materials on Agriculture best practices would be available to a wide audience”, says Alexei Ramotar, who manages the e-governance project.
But while the E-governance project is being rolled out, whatever technology is accessible is being used to help farmers and develop the agriculture sector countrywide.
The use of Blackberry devices has helped the National Agriculture Research Extension Institute (NAREI) solve problems that would have taken hours, even days, to solve.
This has made it “very, very easy” for extension officers to help farmers on the spot, said Dr. Oudho Homenauth, the Director of the country’s National Agriculture Research Institute.
Using a BBM Group, Dr. Homenauth and his senior officers stay connected with officers in the field, including now to the indigenous community of Annai, more than 400 miles away from the offices of NAREI.
“Before, we would have to send information on a plane heading into remote communities, or wait hours until the officers get back into the office with a complaint by a farmer,” Dr. Homenauth says.
But now the situation is much different.
“Today, if the officer in the field is unable to detect a disease, all he needs to do is use his phone to send us a photo.”
The experts on the BBM group are most times able to tell what disease it is and offer advice to the officer so he can tell the farmer right there and then what he needs to do to correct the problem.
One of the biggest problems for the country’s agriculture sector is flooding, and the use of ICTs could help solve that problem.
The Guyana coastline, where most agriculture activity takes place, is below sea level, and so high tides coupled with excessive rainfall could wipe out farmlands, as was the case in 2005 when a massive flood devastated the coastline.
The government has solicited the assistance of the FAO to establish a Geographic Information System (GIS) to map the drainage and irrigation infrastructure in the country.
Mapping of the agricultural lands and its composite drainage and irrigation infrastructure is the foundation of good management practice in flood control, says Dr. Fletcher-Paul of the FAO, quoted earlier.
She says adopting a system where all data is centralized would be an advantage because it provides the basis for an Early Warning System for flood and drought mitigation.
“By developing a system which incorporates the data from each of the agencies which already have GIS, it ensures that there is no duplication of effort, that there is a more coordinated approach to disaster risk management in the agriculture sector and synergies for actions in mitigating flood and drought hazards,” states Dr. Fletcher-Paul.
Agriculture remains the backbone of the Guyanese economy, accounting for 32% of GDP, with 1/3 of the work force employed by the sector.
The use of ICTs is critical in the development of the agriculture sector of Guyana.
It can reap bountiful benefits, as can be seen by the use of simple technologies such as SMS and BBM.
E/N: With this piece Insight’s coverage of the Caribbean Week of Agriculture comes to an end. The next Caribbean Week of Agriculture will be held in Suriname where further, pressing issues concerning agriculture in the region will be discussed. The Editorial Team thanks you for reading.