Ten years ago, access to computers, the internet and other information communication technology (ICT) tools was practically unheard of in the rural districts of Ethiopia. Conventional extension service delivery came in the form of face-to-face knowledge exchange, demonstrations, trainings and visits, handwritten reports and scant reference materials, some as old as 20 years. However, things are changing fast. ICTs have become necessities for day-to-day work execution. Mobile phone coverage and access to computers has increased exponentially in the country in the past few years.
Agricultural technologies and innovations are widely available through the internet in different ICT formats throughout the world. To harness this potential, the Livestock and Irrigation Value Chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) project set out to establish resource centres in district offices of agriculture in its operation sites across the country. The resource centres or agricultural knowledge centres (AKCs) as they are called in LIVES, are places where ICTs are the main sources of agricultural resources. Each of these AKCs is equipped with computers, TV/DVD combination players, printers, LCD projectors, cameras and furniture as well as printed and digital publications from the Improving Productivity and Market Success (IPMS) project, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and other partners.
Lessons from LIVES’ predecessor–the Improving the Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers (IPMS) project– played a big role in the process of setting up these centres. Of the 36 AKCs that LIVES has set up over the past year and half, the AKCs in Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples (SNNP) region are a near perfect illustration of the process and the use of these centres.
Initially, the LIVES SNNP team described the benefits of having such centres to the district agriculture officials and followed this up with a study tour to a knowledge centre that was set up by the IPMS project in Dale District. That tour convinced the visitors of the benefits of establishing such centres. Upon completion of the study tour, rooms were allocated for the AKCs in SNNP and in the case of Bensa District, a budget of ETB 350,000 (approximately USD 17,500) was set aside for a building.
After allocation of the rooms, LIVES delivered the materials and equipment as agreed. The Office of Agriculture (OoA) assigned a knowledge centre manager who would oversee the delivery of service and use of resources. Many of these managers have full-time jobs elsewhere in the Office of Agriculture. Additionally, the OoA worked with the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC) to get access to ADSL broadband internet service after agreeing that LIVES would provide financial support for the first two years after which the OoA would pay for these services.
The commitment from the LIVES zonal coordinators, focal persons and the AKC managers in SNNP has allowed the centres to provide services that were previously difficult to access. Experts come to the centres to read, watch videos, deliver/attend presentations and use digital cameras to capture activities and results in the field. For instance, the focal person in Arbegona District takes and prints pictures from the field for display on the AKC noticeboard, while others have brought back pictures from the field in Bona Zuria Woreda to share progress of their work with colleagues and supervisors. Additionally, the district agriculture office staff use the AKCs for meetings and workshops.
However, access to electricity is still patchy in all the district offices of agriculture where the AKCs are set up. There are power cuts for about 80% of the working hours in a week. To compensate for this, some AKC managers open the centres after office hours and during weekends.
Lack of education, training and skill is also a challenge that affects full use of these agricultural knowledge centres. Books or manuals and other written resources are not regularly used for day to day activities. Primarily because the reading culture is under developed as there are no such resources, and even if there were they were not easily accessible to the experts.
Also, despite opportunities to use the internet in AKCs, these services are underutilized. District agricultural experts do not use computers in day-to-day activities and many of them lack the skills in using computer-based facilities like email. Most use the internet to look for jobs or education opportunities.
To address, these gaps in computer literacy and information on what is available on the web as well as in the AKCs, the LIVES SNNP team has set up short IT courses to build the capacity of the staff in Sidama. As a result, the staff started using computers to type and print reports and other documents. The project is now working in partnership with the officials and the users to fully use the AKCs in SNNP and other sites.