LUSAKA, Zambia (AlertNet) - Farmers will need access to up-to-the-minute information to adapt effectively to climate change, experts say, but in rural Zambia few have access to the Internet.
A southern African communication group hopes to change that by rolling out rural “telecentres” that will act as one-stop shops for communications services in rural areas, offering Internet access, photocopying, credit for mobile phones and other services.
“The internet is an excellent solution” to a variety of problems, said Dean Mulozi, regional facilitator for the Southern Africa Telecentre Network (SATNET), which aims to give rural communities access to and training in how to use communication and information services.
Zambia, like many southern African nations, is seeing increasing prolonged dry seasons and short periods of heavy rainfall, changes believed linked to climate shifts. With most of the country’s population reliant on small-scale farming for a living, the changes are forcing farmers to rethink the way they operate.
In particular, many farmers are switching to hardier crops – such as cassava rather than maize – to help ensure food security.
Whether it’s used to look up drought-resistant crops, determine which crops to plant after each harvest to boost nutrients in the soil, or figure out how to retain water in the soil to prepare for dry spells, the Internet has the potential to provide local communities with help in changing practices.
It also allows two-way communication, letting farmers ask questions and pass on their own techniques, rather than simply absorbing information.
“Boosting the exchange of knowledge ensures that farmers can communicate and are involved as key agents of change in agricultural practices,” Mulozi said. He said information exchanged on the Internet could be backed up with help from agricultural extension agents.
Reliable information about current market prices and availability, machinery, fertiliser, seed, and hardy crop varieties also can help farmers in rural areas boost production, plan ahead and consider their options, he said.
“There is an urgent need to focus on national strategies that involve increased use of information and communication facilities, to help rural communities in southern Africa adapt to changing weather conditions,” Mulozi said.
Studies carried out by the network show that few people own a personal computer and lack of access to telecommunication services means that generally there are low levels of internet penetration and access to communications technologies in southern Africa.
The telecentre project, supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural Cooperation and the InfoBridge Foundation, both based in the Netherlands, focuses on providing services including internet access, photocopying, radios, mobile phone and credit sales and phone charging to rural communities, as well as offering brochures promoting advice about farming practises.
In Mumbwa, about 160 km (100 miles) south of Lusaka, residents used to have to travel to the capital to make a photocopy. Now Francis Mweete, chairman of a local youth group, has opened a telecentre to help farmers and allow the area’s young people access to technology.
“Youths are our future leaders and we have to give them education and exposure” to technology, he said. “I have great hope for this area in terms of development in the next 10 years,” he said. He called Internet access an important learning tool, including for researching school assignments.
Another telecentre, run by the Tigwilizane Women’s Foundation in Chipata, in eastern Zambia, aims to empower women and children with advice and agricultural information. The project is a group initiative organized by local women.
At Chinyunya, where there is no connection to the national power grid, a telecentre set up with the help of the U.N. Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) operates on 67 solar battery cells, providing communications services to over 24,000 local farmers. As power is free, the cost to run the centre is just $21 a month to buy water for the solar batteries.
Altogether, more than 30 telecentres are now operating around the country, each with an average of more than 800 users, Mulozi said.
Backers of the telecentre effort hope to work with Zambia’s government to create more information and internet centres nationwide, and better nationwide mobile phone and Internet infrastructure. Research done by SATNET suggests a lack of public-private partnership is holding up the flow of agricultural information and services to rural communities.
“What we need is more funding towards infrastructure projects in ICTs, so that telecentres can operate sustainably with training and technical support facilities,” said Mulozi.
Calvin Kaleyi, a spokesman for the Zambia National Farmers Union, said that since only the a minority of people in the country have access to the internet - about 6 percent – information centres are hugely beneficial to local communities for finding out about a wide range of agricultural issues, including how to adapt to climate change.
The farmers union, in partnership with local non-government organizations, governmental bodies and the United Nations Development Programme’s climate change project, says it has launched information centres in every district of the country to share agricultural information.
“There are other, more traditional ways of spreading information – telling people in groups, or through public address systems,” he said.
“But when people are in a big group, usually it’s not that effective. At the information centres, we have small groups of people, and people ask specific questions,” he said.
Georgina Smith is freelance journalist and photographer based in Lusaka, Zambia. She reports on environmental and humanitarian issues.