19) Collaborating on IT for rural development (6 July 2004)

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) will collaborate with the Telecommunications and Computer Networking (TeNeT) Group of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) to establish a new system to gather weather data from the rural India and provide agricultural advisories to dryland farmers.

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, the collaboration will reach ICRISAT's technical expertise to the network of rural information kiosk and personnel created by TeNeT, in rural areas.  The project hopes to effectively intertwine the three strands of information and communication technology for rural development (ICT4D), open and distance learning (ODL), and agricultural research.

The TeNeT Group, headed by Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala, has facilitated (through a group of NGOs and companies) the setting up of more than 1000 rural information kiosks, which are linked to information hubs through the wireless in local loop technology. To start with, ICRISAT will work with the Group's well-established network in Tamil Nadu.

ICRISAT will help TeNeT to identify and source cost-effective weather probes that can continuously feed data on temperature, humidity and rainfall to a computer at the rural information kiosk. The data can be also be accessed and compiled at the information hubs. Scientists, administrators and rural development managers can use the data for micro-level drought assessment and management. 

The collaboration was worked out at a workshop held recently at the Patancheru campus of ICRISAT. The workshop brought together leading experts in ICT4D, ODL and agricultural extension. The experts represented international agricultural research institutes, open universities, private sector companies and civil society organizations from different parts of the world. The projects they represented ranged from prototypes to the e-chaupal that covers 4,100 locations in rural India.

The aim of the two-day workshop was to look at new opportunities available to revitalize agricultural extension processes, and to link with the new cadre of information para-workers emerging in the rural areas of South Asia.

Dr Kenneth Keniston of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA, said that to ensure long-term sustainability of projects the need is to prepare realistic timeframes. Dr Nachiket Mor, Executive Director of the ICICI Bank, said that private banks are faced with an emerging need to enter agri-extension to protect their investment and also enable farmers to enter new markets. The ICICI Bank supports about 1200 rural IT centers in India.

Among the other important participants were Roger Barroga (from the Philippines), Ahsan Abdullah (Pakistan) and Atma Ghimire (Nepal). They gave examples of effective IT initiatives for rural development in different parts of Asia.
 
The Open University system in Asia has reached a critical mass and a take off stage, and has created new opportunities for rural youth to earn more through imparting new knowledge and skills. There is great potential to use IT to develop customizable mass education in rural areas of Asia.

The Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT), initiated by ICRISAT in collaboration with partners, is a project that aims to generate such a blend. Institutions such as the Indira Gandhi National Open University, the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture) and the National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management are coalition partners with ICRISAT on the VASAT project.

According to the experts who attended the workshop, the next steps would be to design special programs on weather, water, crop and livestock management for the para-professionals managing the rural information kiosks. This could be done through the use of ODL techniques.

The experts identified the next steps to immediate next steps include specially designed programs in weather, water, crop and livestock issues for para-professionals supporting the rural information kiosks using ODL methods of instruction and online mentoring. The second step will involve linking them to the public sector extension as new intermediaries.

For further information, contact Dr V Balaji at v(dot)balaji(at)cgiar(dot)org.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.