Affordable Technology | Internet Accessibility

By: Henry Kimathi

A quiet revolution has taken place in the last half a century - the telematics revolution. For the last 40 years the cost of processing, storing, and transmitting information has been decreasing at the rate of 50% every 18 months (Delgado et al, 1998).

There is an unprecedented amount of information available, in all sectors, supplied through a wide range of media. To give examples, three important web-based information sites, with a special focus on Pastoralism in East Africa have recently come on-line - The League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Development (www.pastoralpeoples.org), Famine Early Warning Systems Network (www.fews.net) and Community Animal Health Network (www.cah-net.net).

Death to the Digital Divide?
With the growth in information, a digital divide has developed between the information rich and the information poor. Tokyo has more telephones than the whole of Africa. In Africa, one person in every 150 has access to the Internet with the majority being in South Africa and the Magreb (Delgado et al, 1998).

But the digital divide is narrowing. For instance, Moroto, a small town in the heart of Karamoja, Uganda, now has a high-speed satellite Internet link, through which it is possible to surf the net at similar speeds to those in Kampala. Mobile phone networks are rapidly expanding across the region and they have already reached Moyale in northern Kenya. Mobile phones can now be used for voice communication, text messages, or sending e-mails.

Using the text messaging service, farmers and herders can access the latest market information for their livestock and farm produce.In Somalia a network of radios is used to transmit marketing information and place pharmaceutical orders. With relatively inexpensive technology, radios can also be used to send e-mails. In Uganda information on livestock is provided in alternative adult education programmes. Songs in local languages on animal disease control are being recorded and broadcast on local radio stations. In Turkana, community video is used to communicate peace messages.

Cost of Information
However, information has a price. Radio and film are expensive to produce despite having a wide outreach. Printed material remains an important medium but poor infrastructure adds to the cost and due to language barriers and high illiteracy levels, the material is often not accessible to the people who need it most. But all is not lost.

New initiatives currently emerging are making packaging and presentation of development content on radio possible. For instance, a radio programme in Kiswahili christened 'Mali Shambani' - meaning wealth in the farm - is airing on Kenya's national radio service - the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) every Monday.

The initiative provides a sustainable opportunity for development sector players in the country to provide media content at no cost. KBC packages information provided by the content provider for the FM radio at no cost because the bulk of the provider's revenue comes from income earned through advertisements run during the one hour programming.

Although there has been increasing liberalisation and privatisation in what was for most countries a highly controlled and inefficient sector, the use of innovative communication technology is still constrained by imperfect markets.
Cost of Ignorance: Disease
But though information is not cheap, ignorance is more expensive. Livestock disease is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa US$2 billion - twice what is earned by export of livestock and livestock products (King and Mugerwa, 2002).

Cost of Ignorance: Exclusion from Markets
Lack of information also excludes farmers from domestic and international markets. Livestock is the fastest growing agricultural sub-sector and over 90% of the predicted growth will occur in developing countries. In the next 20 years meat consumption will increase by one third - 220 million tonnes in 2001 to 310 million tonnes in 2020 (Delgado et al, 1998). Improved information systems allow dis-intermediation, where producers link more directly to consumers, and by decreasing the number of middlemen, increase their share of the final product value. For example a West African women's fishing cooperative has set up a website to enable its 7,000 members to monitor export markets and negotiate prices with overseas buyers. Is this the future for the livestock sector in East Africa? Very likely.

Global markets for livestock are skewed. Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries spend US$360 billion a year subsidising their agriculture. Development aid for all sectors is just US$50 billion. The US spends US$600 per cow per year supporting its dairy industry - more than what the average person in East Africa has to live on. The situation is not improving. The EU's final tariffs for the year 2000 were almost two-thirds above the actual tariff equivalent for 1989-1993. For the US, they were more than three-quarters higher.

The US Farm Bill signed in May 2002 gives US$45 billion to the US farm industry. With the money US farmers get from the tax payer, they will be able to sell farm goods at lower prices, undercutting more efficient producers in developing countries. This inequitable system is maintained partly by the lobbying of powerful interest groups in OECD countries. The lack of effective and coordinated counter lobbying by developing countries is one of the factors allowing it to persist.

Cost of Ignorance: Models of Worst Practice
Information can help prevent spending money on things that don't work. Years of development interventions have generated large amounts of information on what works, what doesn't and why. For example, community-run dips are rarely successful in pastoral areas. Of the 48 cattle dips built in North East Uganda in 1995 for example, only one was functional in 2002 (King and Mugerwa, 2002). Community drug users associations run on a volunteer basis rarely work. In northern Kenya more than three quarters of the community drug shops have failed to deliver profits and been plagued by mismanagement and poor performance. (Grace and Muraguri, Oct 2001).

Understanding the past is essential to avoid an endless cycle of repeating mistakes. But even worse than spending money on things that don't work, is spending money on mutually destructive strategies. Schizophrenic development is still too commonplace in the East African Livestock Sector.

In Kenya and Uganda some development agents are providing subsidised drugs while others in the same area are supporting privatisation. In one pastoral area, the local government is trying to develop the local economy at the same time as the army is closing livestock markets!

The Role of Regional Information Management in Creating an Enabling Environment
Regional organisations play a key role in information management. Most important of these is the creation of an enabling environment for the knowledge economy. This entails reducing tariff and non tariff barriers to the information sector, providing public good information incentives for private good information, investment in education and infrastructure, encouraging competition and decreasing entry barriers to the information sector.

Is it Encouraging Information Exchange?
The rules that govern the movement of livestock and livestock products are increasingly evidence based and information needs to flow both between members and from the East African Bloc to external markets. Information does not move where there are no incentives. Indeed for much disease-related information there may be perverse incentives not to exchange information.

Producers are tempted to ignore problems, hoping they will go away rather than inform customers and regulators there is a problem. Certainly this was a factor in the ban on exports from Africa to the Middle East as the result of Rift Valley Fever, which cost exporters in Africa millions of dollars.
Regional organisations can facilitate the setting up of simple, workable, evidence-based systems for information exchange, and perhaps more importantly by building trust between members and markets both internal and external. Only then will the information exchange be deemed viable.

References
Delgado, L. Hopkins, J. & Kelly V. (1998) 'Agricultural Growth Linkages in Sub-Saharan Africa' IPFRI Research Report No 107, Washington, D.C.
Grace, D. & Muraguri, P. (2001) 'Privatised Animal Health Services in ASAL Areas: Feasibility and Business Planning', CAPE-OAU-IBAR, Nairobi.
King, A. & Mugerwa, E. (2002) 'Livestock Marketing in Southern Sudan: With Particular Reference to Cattle Trade between Southern Sudan and Uganda' CAPE-OAU-IBAR, Nairobi.

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