The web: a thing of the past, or here to stay?

Originally written on Saturday, 1 August 2015

How relevant and useful are web tools for ICT4Ag today? Are they on their way out, or on the contrary, is the web a nucleus from which other channels spread?

Is the web still a relevant environment for communicating agricultural information to users? Or is it doomed to collapse in the future – to be replaced by other channels? The question we raise is about the interest and relevance of web tools, applications and services (simply called web solutions) for agriculture today.

Timely access to critical information and knowledge has become a necessity to sustain competitive levels of agricultural production. Traditionally, farmers have relied on extensionists, NGOs and traders to acquire agricultural know-how. However, due to the limitations of this traditional approach – the frequency, cost, quality and timeliness of interactions – farmers’ expectations are rarely met. To fill this gap, people are turning to new ICTs to provide farmers with tailor-made information, mostly via the internet.

This turn of events has witnessed the emergence of several agricultural information management systems (AIMSs) in the past decade. This seems to be the result of initiatives and efforts undertaken by development agencies and the private sector trying to improve production and market conditions of agricultural stakeholders. Other key factors to have triggered this development include the availability of new, cheaper devices combined with internet access.

The web is becoming an increasingly strong channel for reaching users. Studies show that there are more than one billion websites online and more than 550 websites created worldwide every single minute. Though mobile is progressing quickly, the web seems here to stay. In terms of the web channel’s usability and functionality, some of the strong arguments for growth are the fact that the web is cross-platform and can be accessed from any device, as long as a web browser is available. It can also integrate and map important volumes of information on a single screen. It can resize and adapt to any screen, whether on a tablet or smartphone.

It also supports the functions of intermediaries such as agricultural extension officers, international development and NGO field staff, representatives of farmer organisations as well as some progressive farmers. These intermediaries use the web to optimise their information exchange with end users, most of whom are illiterate. Their use of the web also supports the argument that ICTs are not here to replace the human aspect of extension but to complement it. Indeed, an ongoing activity at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in the Netherlands to build an Apps4Ag Database reveals a wide range of ICT solutions that combine the web with other channels such as video, SMS and radio.

Examples of the use of web with other channels for agricultural information exchange include:

  • Advisory services to inform farmers about good agricultural practices. CTA, in collaboration with eLEAF, are using the web (e.g. FieldLook, a custom web portal for growers and crop management advisors) in combination with SMS to support extension services delivery for the Gezira Irrigation Project in Sudan.
  • Training and education through e- learning to develop user capacity. The Commonwealth of Learning promotes local capacity across Commonwealth countries to develop e-Learning kits that are compatible with mobile devices. FAO also works with CTA on IMARK to provide training for agricultural stakeholders.
  • Market information and market intelligence for producers, traders, development organisations and policymakers. Several market information platforms are now combining the web and SMS with traditional market billboards and radio to disseminate information to users, e.g. RATIN by the East African Grain Council and NKALO in West Africa.

On the other hand, several powerful search engines on the web are enabling easy access and exposure to a wealth of agricultural information. Searches may result in useful tools, such as Garden Planner, iCow or mFisheries.

Since the creation of the first web page in the 1990s, the tools and environment used to develop web content has not stopped improving, and this has allowed a high and increasingly easier level of linkages and integration of many types of content, such as audio, video, photo and maps, and services.

Thinking web, you will get more with less: more information and services from a single universal platform; more information in a single screen (no intermittent scrolling); more types of content in a unified environment and a single graphical screen. Web applications keep working: no matter what device you use, you will always get more clients, even if they are using different platforms. For now at least, the web is here to stay.

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