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Bridging the gap between information and communication

by Ibrahim Khadar. & Sarah Reynolds

CTA has been sponsoring a series of four workshops to discuss the agricultural information needs of Central. Western, Eastern and Southern Africa. The first three have now taken place and the fourth is planned for later this year. At the workshop covering the Eastern region, which was held in The Seychelles last December, discussions highlighted a number of concerns. These centred around three main areas: the practical considerations surrounding maintaining and improving library and documentation services the fundamental need to ensure that those services provide a route to agricultural development that is relevant to the farmers on whom that development depends; and the need to improve the flow of information by ensuring that information specialists become communicators and not simply collectors and custodians of data.

Information and development

Developing countries in sub Saharan Africa, sometimes by definition and usually in practice, are highly dependent on agricultural production It is the mainstay of their economies and the principal occupation of their people. Governments have realised that national development depends, at least initially, on agricultural development and yet lack of consistent commitment to rural development has led to low agricultural productivity and high levels of external debt. These mark a trend away from the development so many work so hard to achieve.

Persistent food shortages mean that many countries are finding it necessary to use scarce foreign exchange to import food. Until agricultural production improves to the point where a reasonable and sustainable level of internal food self sufficiency is achieved, as well as the capacity to add value to agricultural export commodities, this downward trend is unlikely to be reversed. Yet development could be accelerated by improved access to information

In order to encourage greater use of scientific and technical information as a means to agricultural and socioeconomic development, CTA took the initiative to review the agricultural information needs of countries in Eastern Africa. Reports were prepared on Comores, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sudan. Tanzania and Uganda. These national reports provided the basis for preparing a regional overview of agricultural information needs in East Africa. The regional overview in turn, formed the basis for discussions at the workshop in Seychelles.

The review and workshop confirmed that a noticeable effort is being made at national and regional levels to increase agricultural production, through removal of price controls on farm products, strengthening of extension services and reorganisation and rehabilitation of agricultural research. However, there remains an obvious gap between known agricultural technologies that could lead to higher productivity and the adoption of those technologies by farmers. That gap could bebridged by putting effort, consistent commitment and energy into improving agricultural information systems - for without information there can be no' development.

Type of information needed: some examples

For national development to' move forward, agricultural productivity i the longer term has to move beyond the level at which internal food self-sufficienc is sustained The capacity to add value toagricultural products needs to be enhance and there are many instances. at village level processing for example, where the investment in technology is minimal but the role of information is crucial On example, although at an industrial level was given at the workshop. Ugand produces first class cotton and yet sewing thread is imported from China. It ma appear to some people that high class technology and perhaps millions of dollars are needed to produce sewing three locally, and yet a suitable machine costs only about US$ 300. The raw material there, the market is there and there are competent people who can do the work All they lack is information.

In some countries in the region farmers are becoming more and more interested in information relating to ma' kets for their products. For example the' are turning to horticultural products an other cash crops which depend on makets in urban areas or overseas They need toknow what products to grow at what time and the likely economic benefits from such an enterprise. But this information is not so readily available to small and medium scale farmers as it is to the big commercial enterprises. As a result many smaller farmers, on whom future developments depend, enter into such activities ill informed Without adequate information and advice, such farmers can find themselves at the mercy of middlemen, and they may be left with a product they cannot sell and their entrepreneurial spirit crushed This is a national as well as a personal setback.

Access to information , too costly?

Researchers need to be able to gain access to world literature to ensure that research being undertaken elsewhere on one problem is not repeated in every country where such a problem occurs.

In many ACP countries the cost of maintaining library services is becoming prohibitive. The Eastern African Framework for Action on Agricultural Research (FFA), which is committed to revitalising and strengthening agricultural research in the region found, during their study of the existing system, that many libraries were nearly empty Shortage of foreign exchange has meant that the number of international journals coming into libraries has been reduced to the few of common interest to many scientists. The specialist information needs of individual researchers are therefore not being effectively met

World literature on agriculture and development related issues can be accessed on international databases. The development of CD-ROM databases has provided developing countries with an additional means of allowing many users to have access to relevant literature published world-wide, However access to on-line or CD-ROM databases by users in developing countries is constrained by high fees which have to be paid in foreign currency.

Harnessing local sources of information

By the same token that researchers need to gain access to world literature, they also need to publish the results of their own research.

The strengthening or establishing of regional facilities for publishing research would enhance local publishing and provide an outlet for such work. These facilities would be far more accessible to researchers working on similar problems within the region. than if they tried to publish their work in international scientific journals. There is no shortage of excellent. relevant material. The challenge is to overcome the difficulties in establishing and sustaining such facilities.

A small number of regional scientific journals exist in the Eastern African region. I hey include the African C,op Science Journal, East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal, Revue Agricole et Sucriere de l'lle Maurice, and Proceedings of the Co//aborative Committee for Agriculture for the Indian Ocean /elands (COCOLAG). However, some assistance is needed to ensure that these journals are published in a timely manner. Publishing can be further enhanced through training in scientific writing and editing. Support should also be provided for the publication and translation of books, conference proceedings, journal abstracts, and other publications relevant to the region. In addition to journal publications, researchers in the region should be encouraged to publish research results in other forms, such as digests, newsletters, occasional papers, current awareness notes, and bulletins.

Access to published scientific research is but one buttress of a muchneeded information bridge. Without the buttress of farmer knowledge and experience the information bridge collapses.

So an important aspect of agricultural information is the documentation of farming operations, not only dealing with technologies but also dealing with the social and economic aspects of farming. For example, the shortage of labour is often the overriding constraint to adoption of new technologies

The current trend towards farming systems research and the changing attitude of researchers towards their client farmers should in time discourage the top down direction of information flow which ignores the multiplicity of problems facing farmers and pursues a defined policy in an inflexible and unforgiving manner. The information bridge should provide for access in both directions. The one-way system has failed. But there is a need to provide better means of documenting farmer knowledge and the non-empirical experience for which there is not room in scientific journals.