In order to ensure that the country’s smallholder farmers get updated information about market prices for their produce, the Rwanda government through the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) and the Rwanda Information Technology Authority (RITA), has launched an IT platform to provide market information.
The e-Soko platform is part of the e-Rwanda initiative – a World Bank-funded ICT project being implemented by RITA – and is intended to mitigate against current information gap for farmers with the use of ICTs.
The e-Soko portal can be accessed from the country’s 30 TeleCentres or Business Development Centres (BDCs) set up in each district and seeks to empower farmers to enable them make more informed market pricing decisions and ultimately more successful farming.
During a tour to one of the TeleCentres situated within the outskirts of Rwanda’s capital, , recently, Ms Angelique Uwimana, an information systems specialist at Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) said that the project was started about four months ago and involved RITA; Rwanda Development Board (RDB); MINAGRI and the Private Sector Foundation.
“The TeleCentres or BDCs are implemented in all the 30 districts of Rwanda and offer various services including farmers’ training on new crop production methods and high-yielding varieties, basic ICT training as well as business plan writing at a fee for the community members,” said Ms Uwimana.
The initiative is expected to greatly benefit the country’s agriculturally-dependent population, estimated to make up about 75 per cent of the entire population of about 11.4 million, most of who are smallholder farmers relying on agriculture for both food while the surplus is sold to facilitate purchase of other commodities.
According to MINAGRI, the success of these farmers has been greatly affected by lack of access to pricing information, with many farmers left to speculate on what crops to grow and what prices to charge at harvest.
Due to lack of information about market prices, some farmers depend on middlemen to dictate the prices, in most cases leading to exploitative prices being offered for desperate farmers. This has led to the recognition that for any farmer to earn a decent living from agriculture, easy access to information on market prices is key.
This e-Soko’s Agricultural Market Pricing Information System (AMIS) is expected to enhance the MINAGRI’s interaction with the farmers and traders as well as planning.
“Through AMIS, the government will provide agricultural extension material online while those farmers who need to refer to the extension materials at a later date would be able to make printouts at the BDCs,” said Uwimana, adding that the extension material is also available in audio-visual for those who can not read.
The eRwanda Project also provides training to farmers on the use and maintenance of the e-Soko system equipment in order to sustain the new communication channels that will have been introduced by the system.
For farmers without mobile phones, village phones are used to access the prices with the field staff employed by MINAGRI collecting information via their smartphones after which the pricing information is entered in the e-Soko database.
“The e-Soko platform currently provides agricultural market price information in Kinyarwanda through SMS via a short code – 7656 – or the online portal. The market price information is available for all the common crops in Rwanda including cabbages; cassava; maize and bananas,” noted Mr Shema Berhardin, manager of Batinda BDC in Kigali.
The Rwanda government – through MINAGRI and RTB – has signed an agreement with mobile service provider MTN for a six-month trial of the service during which users will not be charged for SMS sent to the 7656 short code for price information to enhance uptake of the service by the public. Currently, SMS enquiries to the short code attract standard SMS charges of 10 Rwanda francs or US $ 0.02 while farmers without mobile phones access the price information via village phones.
The eRwanda project, in a bid to have farmers and traders fully utilise the eSoko system, will provide training to MINAGRI officials, farmers, traders and the general public on the use and maintenance of the eSoko system equipment.
The eRwanda project has various similarities with Kenya’s Pasha Centre initiative (previously called Digital Villages project) in that both are funded by the World Bank; are being implemented by state corporations – the Kenya ICT Board (Kenya) and RITA and Rwanda Development Board (RDB) for Rwanda and have a focus on local administrative units – 47 counties in Kenya and 30 districts in Rwanda.
For Kenya, the Kenya ICT Board and Family Bank have already launched US $ 3.8 million loan facility – provided by the World Bank – to support the establishment of the Pasha Centres across the country.
The Pasha Centres, most of which are to be in the rural areas, are meant to help deliver the government’s objective of ensuring that Kenyans have access to the internet, use it to access government e-services or e-government and improve their lives. As a pilot, five Pasha Centres have been established in various parts of the country – Nkubu, Garissa, Kangundo, Malindi and Mukuru.
The target is to have one Pasha Centre in each of the country’s 210 constituencies by end of 2011 and the deadline for applications for the loans was February 15 2011. Already, the Kenya ICT Board’s Pasha project has announced the completion of the first phase of loan application phase from which 37 successful applicants will each receive US $ 21,176 to implement or improve existing Pasha centres within Kenya’s 37 constituencies and 24 counties.