For many farmers in the developing world, the chance to improve their activities require little effort if the right technology is used. They have found that electronic agriculture, or e-agriculture, midwifed through revolution in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) makes it possible for players in the sector to store and access information, data, and targeted resources on a real-time basis.
Experts say the coming of e-agriculture has made a difference between progress and poverty by giving the farmers the information they need and the platform to show others how they made it.
Globally, the basic needs of farmers include information on market prices, weather forecasts, transport and storage facilities, crop and livestock diseases. Farmers can obtain information through the Internet, SMS, voice, web portal and call centres.
This has resulted in interaction among players and stakeholders in the agric sector including farmers, commodity brokers, buyers, extension workers, policy makers and end-consumers.
E-agriculture has drawn up a new road map for the industry in the global market. Largely, the development is seen as a huge step in bringing farmers to the global market place.
Overall, the realisation of the full benefits of e-agriculture is linked to access, affordable, and also a well-qualified workforce at all levels.
The international context in which the Information Technology (IT) applications for e-agriculture is modeled, requires increasing manpower development and training that is predicated on progress in telecommunications and information technology.
As a result, applications of e-agriculture have increased the technical capacities required of farm managers, pest management consultants, plant pathologists, commodity brokers, agriculture education teachers, extension agents, quality control inspectors, timber brokers, food industry managers, foresters, breed organisations, field representatives, range managers, government inspectors, conservation scientists, plant engineers, farm crop advisers, animal health researchers, wildlife officers, aquaculturists, and land management consultants.
These developments have created new opportunities for the sector and played a major part in changing the way the services are offered. E-agriculture has changed agric education, training, service delivery and improved lives.
Despite this growing recognition of the role of e-agriculture in improving the quantity and quality of production and maximising profits, increasing globalisation of competency improvements in the sector has raised fears that Nigeria may be left behind.
The challenge for the sector is developing human capacities that can compete with the rest of the world, as the gap between Nigeria and the industrialised world has widened in terms of capacities to manage and deploy e-agriculture technologies to help farmers increase food productivity.
The Editor of African journal of Agricultural Resource Economics of African Association of Agricultural Economists (AAAE), Prof Adebiyi Daramola, said the nation lacks highly qualified human personnel to drive the kind of changes accelerated by the digital revolution in the agriculture sector.
These skills, he noted are key to capitalising on the new opportunities.
In other countries, there are increasing e-agriculture workshops and conferences taking place. These efforts indicate the importance the governments and the private sector attach to the technologies and how vital they rate them to their national development.
For him, adequate attention has not been given to providing farmers with access to electronic information, especially in rural areas.
The global agricultural sector is undergoing a revolution that enables small holder farms to compete in world markets.
To react to the explosive growth of agriculture trade enhanced by e-commerce, Daramola said all the players involved in training and development should be able to equip farmers with all they need to seize the chunk of the competitive industry.
Speaking with The Nation, the acting Executive Director, Agriculture and Rural Management Institute (ARMTI), Ilorin, Mr Julius Onietan, said the institute has accelerated efforts to improve on capacities to confront the challenges of e-agriculture.
Organisation wide, he said efforts have been made to deploy modern ICTs to speed up the delivery of training.
In view of its mandate, he said top and middle level professionals in the sector can tap these resources and access information that can be used to improve the quality of farming activities.
Onietan said ARMTI has acquired infrastructure and expertise to acquint management staff on how to use videos to instruct farming groups and leaders, adding that e-learning facility has enabled them to participate in online classes and have virtual discussions with its experts, without having to travel to the institute.
He said the institute has developed materials to meet e-agriculture expectations.
Onietan acknowledged that Nigeria and other African countries have registered remarkable economic growth in the past decade but that weak capacity remains a perennial challenge.
As the nation aims to be among the 20 most developed countries of the world by 2020, he urged the government to invest in human capacity.
With climate change, more extreme weather is expected to threaten industries in agriculture.
The President, National Association of Agric Graduates, Comrade Michael Egbuta, said agro weather forecast is a critical element of electronic agriculture, adding that lack of reliable and comprehensive weather information is a major hindrance to agricultural development.
As much as the technology has improved in the field, Egbuta maintained that the government requires men with higher education in agro meteorology and extension experts that can assist farmers to get acquainted with new technologies.
He wants weather stations established across the country to collect data on temperature, wind speed, solar radiation and relative humidity, and automatically deliver the data to to farmers.
Egbuta is of the opinion that weather information, combined with the evapotranspiration data, determine the conditions for actual water consumption by the crops on a particular farm.
In most research institutes, capacity to reach the farmers are limited to use of videos, television programmes, films, slides and pictures, particularly in training sessions.
Beyond this, there is the challenge of transferring such information electronically from the research station to farming community and feedback from the farming community to the research station.
Agric manpower development expert, Dr Olugbenga Ladebo said the country is yet to achieve full capacity in e-agriculture.
Like others, Ladebo, who is of the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta said there is lack of human resources, institutional capacity, and sensitivity to rapid changes in e-agriculture.
He said there is a huge shortfall in the human capacity, and skills are needed to deploy, roll-out and maintain the connectivity resources, systems and telecommunications, network infrastructure designed to boost agricultural development.
In the emerging world of e-agriculture, professionals need more than just farming knowledge.
A Senior Lecturer at the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (UNAAB), Dr Kola Adebayo said new crop of extension officers are required who can deploy ICTs and telecommunications facilities to supply information to farmers and cooperatives on available products, local market prices, new crops, new technologies, and indigenous knowledge.
On secondment to the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, Chatham, Kent, United Kingdom as Project Manager, Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (C:AVA), Adebayo said, it has become critical to provide farmers with guidance on where and when to sow, harvest, process, and market their produces.
The don, who has worked as an extension officer, rural development expert and lecturer, maintained that extension officers need to understand the importance of the agric communication infrastructure that can reach the remote parts of the country.
To achieve this, he said the institutes have to equip mid-career and young professionals with the essential competencies in e-agricultural research and development to facilitate rural development.
To meet the challenges that lie ahead, he maintained that the level of qualified people employed in the industry need to be raised substantially.
Despite this, Adebayo warns that the industry will not advance with desk top researchers.
For the industry to soar, he said Nigeria needs IT oriented researchers with firm grasp of the practicalities of farmer training, and understanding agricultural value chain addition. He said emphasis should be placed on developing multi-skilled professionals who are able to quickly adapt to the ICT needs of the sector.
His concern also was that electricity supply is one obstacle to the massive ICT adoption.
Adebayo urged the government to improve power supply to boost e-agriculture.
Improving the capacity for e-agriculture requires much more than just building human capacities. Presently, majority of farmers, based in rural areas have no access to ICTs and other infrastructure and services is limited. Across the country, farmers are not able to use the Internet to access information on commodity prices, weather, farm chemicals, and machinery. Nor are they migrating quickly toward Web-based transactions such as purchasing seed, crop chemicals, and farm equipment on the Internet.
To watchers, enough locally relevant digital content has not been developed or adapted; and access to ICTs is still not affordable for rural populations. The situation is made worse by the fact that illiteracy rates are high and access to electricity, phones is a problem to farmers in the rural area.
Today, there is no network established to gather and disseminate agricultural market price information via newspapers, the Internet, radio and mobile phones (SMS).
In several areas in the country, farmers depend on brokers to purchase their produce.
Some don’t know the prices fetched in distant markets, or the mark-up the traders were putting on the farm inputs.
The farmers are interested in knowing how much what they produced sold for in the national and international market; and how much farm inputs like fertilisers and pesticides cost; how much they could pay to get their produce to some markets and so on.
For watchers, employment opportunities in agriculture are substantial and the prospects are bright into the foreseeable future. The demand for skilled young agriculturalists can be expected to be high as African countries seek rapid growth in their agricultural economies. The major driver in the African Green Revolution will be broad-based uptake of highly improved technology and market opportunities by African farming families and communities.
In response, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been in the forefront of providing training on using communication-for-development methodologies.
FAO is developing a rural Internet approach for rural agricultural communities.