ICT connects farmers

http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=178738

Sown & Reaped
ICT connects farmers

L-R: A farmer harvests strawberries at his field in Saidpur. Ruhul Amin wears headphones to watch a documentary on optimal farming practices at AICC, Pirgachha, Rangpur. Photo: Sohel Parvez

Sohel Parvez

Golap Barman sprayed thousands of taka worth of pesticide but saw the condition of his green chilli plants continued to deteriorate.

The rattled farmer sought advice from his experienced peers and the extension workers. But it was all useless.

However, Barman did not give in.

As a last resort, he plucked out a diseased green chilli plant and set off for the Agriculture Information and Communication Centre (AICC) at his village market to visit an agriculturist, via video conferencing.

At AICC, a young man named Masudur Rahman adjusted the webcam, helping Barman to show the diseased plant to the agriculturist who was sitting at the Dhaka head office of Agriculture Information Service (AIS).

Upon inspection, the agriculturist prescribed Barman to use sulpher on the field. Barman did so accordingly. Within four days, his green chilli plants started recovering.

“It was great respite for me. I had invested Tk 50,000 on these green chilli plants and was worrying about counting losses due to crop failure,” said Barman, sitting at his backyard in the village of Purbadebu, Pirgachha, Rangpur, more than 300 kilometres north of Dhaka.

Barman is one of the few lucky farmers among millions in Bangladesh who benefitted from information technology in crop cultivation.

Many of his neighbours are also now aware of the services at AICC in Nek Mamud bazaar of the village, a place where very few people had the skills to operate a computer.

But some enthusiastic farmers, especially young and middle-aged literates, have learnt the techniques to running computers, browsing websites, downloading farm production technology content and video conferencing.

It has been more than three years that many farmers at AICC, run by a farmers’ group named Purbadebu Maddhapara IPM Club, get information suggestions on modern production technology from experts.

AICC was established under a government initiative to provide information quickly to farmers in rural areas, where the internet penetration rate is much lower than the national average of 7 percent.

Under the initiative, the government with support from donors has established 20 AICCs by providing computers, webcams, printers and other devices for free.

The aim of the AICCs, AIS Director Mohammad Nazrul Islam says, is to reach out to the ‘unreachable’ farmers and reduce the information gap to boost crop production.

Tens of thousands of the 14.72 millions of farm households remain out of extension services due to inadequate agricultural extension workers.

Now, 12,000 agriculture extension officials work at field levels to give advice to farmers on crop production, and to motivate them to adopt new and advanced technologies to boost production. But it is difficult for a single extension worker to tend to 1,500-2,000 families.

A lack of knowledge of the extension workers on modern and continuously advancing agriculture is becoming an impediment to transferring information to farmers, analysts say.

Farmers say the advice they get through ICT on crop production and management is good help.

“We are getting good advice without any cost. It saves our time as we don’t have to travel miles to get suggestions from agriculture experts or wait for the agriculture extension officials to come,” says Mohammad Marfat Ullah, a 65-year old farmer at Purbadebu, Pirgachha.

“The services allowed me to cut crops losses. At the same time, I am also guided on how to grow various crops.”

To support farmers running the AICCs, AIS has opened a website, http://www.ais.gov.bd, in Bangla, where farmers can get the latest weather forecasts and information on ensuring better harvests.

The website contains materials on production and pest management methods for cereals, vegetables and fruits.

The website also includes a section where queries can be placed.

AIS officials say they provide preliminary training to farmers at AICCs before rendering services to other farmers.

Not only the government, but also some private sector organisations, including non-government organisations, have also taken steps to disseminate information to farmers through ICT.

The mobile phone is emerging as an aid for growers. The AIS, with support from Banglalink, has taken up an initiative to send text message alerts to inform farmers and field level agriculture workers on relevant information, like adverse weather conditions.

Another government initiative is the digital Purjee, a purchase order and sugarcane crushing date issued by local mills. Farmers are to bring their produce within three days of the issuance of Purjee.

Already, farmers who supply sugarcane to state-owned mills are receiving ‘purjee’ through text messages on their mobile phones. It has replaced the over 200-year tradition of sending Purjee to growers by paper.

Banlalink, the second biggest telecoms operator, also provides suggestions and answers to farmers’ queries through a call centre based helpline that runs round the clock. Banglalink users can dial 7676 for services.

But Refayet Ullah, another farmer at Purbadebu, says the service is complex and time consuming.

“I tried but it takes a lot of time. You have to press one button after another to reach the desired person. It is also difficult to clearly discuss the problems over phone,” says Refayet. “And call charges are also high.”

For Refayet and others farmers such as Barman, video conferencing is the most effective tool.

Mohammad Ataur Rahman, a 30-year-old strawberry farmer at Saidpur, said the online materials on production technology helped him to know the methods to strawberry farming.

“I learnt about how to prepare land, apply appropriate doses of fertilisers and prevent diseases by going through the website,” says Rahman, who sold strawberries worth Tk 130,000 last year by investing Tk 35,000 on 30 decimals of land.

But Rahman, who went to the AICC at Saidpur, Nilphamari, wants more information on marketing and packaging of farm produces.

Today, both Rahman and Barman are more confident than before. This is because of the support from expert advice and guidance from the AICCs in their localities.

“The internet services and scope for expert advice is a great relief. In case of any problem, I have support now,” says Barman.

sohel@thedailystar.net

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