SATrends Issue 50
January 2005
1. Tsunami Disaster: Call for help

The Tsunami attack 0f 26 December 2004 on the coastal habitations of Southeast and South Asia have caused extraordinary damage in human terms. Millions of individuals have lost their livelihoods, and serious damage in the biosphere has been reported. Natural resources, especially soil and water resources have lost the potential to support livelihoods.

The tsunami thrashing the land

Besides urging ICRISAT staff members to contribute voluntary monetary assistance, Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT and the Chair of the Center Directors Committee, has called upon the CGIAR centers to initiate coordinated action for immediate and early relief. While expressing his anguish at the great suffering, and offering his deep condolences, in a message addressed to the top management of the centers he wrote:

I believe that we in the CGIAR have to act fast to respond to the present disaster induced by tsunamis in Asia. Based on my reading of the current situation, I think our substantive role is to help rebuild livelihoods in affected communities in the medium to long term.I am happy to note that our sister Centers, especially IWMI, WorldFish Center and ICRAF, have acted fast to respond in the affected areas.

On a system level, it seems that our action will be in two phases. The first phase will deal with situation analysis, needs assessment and area targeting, and will build on what our sister Centers are already doing. This will be followed by a more comprehensive project to be implemented by individual Centers or groups of Centers and their partners.

I envision that our systemwide effort will be based on the core competencies, current activities and locale of each Center in relation to the disaster. For instance, we at ICRISAT (with ILRI and IWMI) will offer the network of the Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT) as a key contributor to a multiple disaster early warning scheme in South Asia.

This message has been repeated here with the sincere hope that we will do the best we can for the unfortunate victims of this natural disaster.

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2. “Tell truth to power”

Bruce Alberts, President of the prestigious US national Academy of Sciences (US-NAS) and Co-Chair of the InterAcademy Council, visited ICRISAT-Patancheru on 12 January and addressed the staff members of the Institute. Bruce was a member of the CGIAR Systems Review (1998) and facilitated the organization of two InterAcademy groups on inventing the future and another on Revitalizing African Agriculture. His contributions in the area of molecular biology are widely known. The US-NAS has signed a memorandum with ICRISAT to share the NAS online publications which will enhance creation of new instructional and information modules. ICRISAT is the only CGIAR center with which the Academy has an agreement.


Dr Bruce Alberts.

In his seminar at ICRISAT-Patancheru, Bruce Alberts emphasized the importance of interdisciplinarity in development research. He touched upon the role of scientific research in revitalizing agriculture in Africa. Acknowledging the complexity of the challenges, he wanted the scientific community to start with workable aspects that will deliver  impact in the near future. He believes that strengthening the capacity of African institutions of higher learning is an essential part of revitalizing African agriculture and described the current program of the National Academy and the InterAcademy Council in promoting science academies in Africa

 Citing his own experiences, Bruce Alberts emphasized the importance of academies being able to “tell truth to power” through their fundamental commitments to scientific excellence combined with a genuine international perspective. The report on Africa proposes capacity strengthening of African scientists and building regional centers of excellence as among the core measures that would contribute to creating positive impact in the foreseeable future.


(visit to browse the Academy’s publications online; they are free to read)

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3. Create once and use many times
ICRISAT, as part of the VASAT program, has developed significant expertise in the use of advanced online learning management systems, and has moved further on with using them to create information and instruction modules for the rural extension system. The approach here is similar to what is practiced in the field of software engineering: create once and use many times. This underlies the concept of re-usable learning objects. A lesson or module can be decomposed into its constituent objects, such as images, text, animations etc, and tagged like the way librarians catalogue a book/document using defined standards. The tagged objects can be searched out, and re-combined to produce new lessons. This approach is meant to reduce the enormous costs associated with the creation of online modules, and new lessons can be created through use of “objects’ from the old ones. This approach is gaining currency internationally, and international standards are emerging.

A screen capture of a VASAT module.

ICRISAT, as part of the VASAT project, has established a pilot system for a repository of learning objects on a Sun Microsystems platform. The lessons and modules created on VASAT are being decomposed into objects that can be recombined. The audiences intended are the rural extension workers and youth. The challenge here is to create objects that can be combined to give granules rather than modules. ICRISAT team of young professionals developed two different approaches to meeting this challenge successfully, using open source software techniques.

In a recent meeting organized by the Commonwealth of Learning in India, a network of five agricultural universities expressed their interest in having their faculty trained in this broad area by ICRISAT. The universities are the Tamilnadu Agricultural University, TN Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Kerala Agricultural University, the Maharashtra Animal and Fisheries Sciences University and the Maharana Pratap Agri University in Rajasthan. (All these universities are about to launch extension and continuing education programs in the off-campus mode).

ICRISAT technologists will offer this program later this year in association with another national partner, the Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation.

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4. A “spoke” in the arm for Afghanistan
Agriculture in Afghanistan is the most important sector of economic activity. Afghanistan’s agricultural extension system suffered serious damages during nearly two decades of war. Farm productivity as well as profitability need to be increased in a relatively short span of time to ensure food and livelihood security of rural families in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MoAL) is setting up a new system for extension, and it is essential that it be made interactive and responsive to facilitate flow of knowledge and data between farmers and extension agencies. Contemporary ICTs have a major role to play in sustaining such a system. A number of strategies for harnessing ICT for rural development are available in the context of South Asia. The MoAL, in partnership with ICRISAT, and with the support of IDRC, has already built internal capacity in the use of ICT.With new capacity built, the MoAL has invited ICRISAT to join in developing a pilot ICT-based system that will enable farmers to access important production and marketing information. With the support of the IDRC, this collaborative project has commenced in January 2005.

Development of such a pilot requires research on appropriate ICT, economics and sustainability factors. We propose to adopt the hub-and-spokes model of ICT in rural development already tested in India successfully. We will have the MoAL as the hub and three provincial locations as the ends of spokes. The activities will be based on on-site surveys in the identified locations, using contemporary participatory information needs appraisal techniques. Based on Afghanistan national regulations and terrain conditions, a suitable blend of connectivity technologies will be identified. Capacity building at the provincial locations and capacity strengthening at the hub will be important activities of the project, while qualitative and quantitative data would be gathered at various levels to assess the impact

The outcome would be enhanced capacity among the MoAL officials and experts and among the provincial operators to use ICT effectively to promote food and livelihood security.Based on the studies and analyses, a blueprint for wider and sustainable adoption of ICT in agricultural extension in Afghanistan will be developed.

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