How COVID-19 has accelerated adoption of ICTs in AR4D
By Ben Moses Ilakut: That livelihoods are at stake due to the COVID-19 pandemic is now an undisputed reality. This is the reason the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres has appealed to the international community and Governments across the globe to: “support directly those that lose their jobs, those that lose their salaries, the small companies that cannot operate anymore, all those that are the fabrics of our societies.”
He spoke to the core our minds. Right now people all over the world are rethinking the way they work. To work, they need to communicate to pull together partnerships through which they draw tools of production including farm inputs and outputs, transport facilities, extension services, financial services, market connections, human resources, and other connections that make things work.
Solutions and tools out there
Due to the lockdowns, curfews, social distancing and numerous disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, corporates are seeking the best tools and solutions for working remotely to manage virtual teams, time, planning and tracking implementation progress. Some of technologies including virtual private networks (VPNs), voice over internet protocols (VoIPs), virtual meetings, cloud technology, work collaboration tools, video calls conferencing, and facial recognition innovations are making things work in real contexts.
Corporates are seeking the best tools and solutions for working remotely to manage virtual teams and time
Other tools now being sought after by corporates to conduct virtual offices include Zoom video conference tool, reputed for high quality video and audio; Google G Suite, reputed for its capacity for larger meetings (up to 250 participants) and live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers; Discord, reputed for extending to 50 simultaneous users; Microsoft 365, known for joint project tracking; and Springworks, a remote resources repository known for its tools and platforms for working remotely etc.
Did COVID fast track ICT pace?
It may as such not be premature to deduce that the pandemic, on a positive note, has forcefully accelerated the adoption and diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that populations across the world, including in Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D) had either been reluctant to put into use or were using causally.
Since the advent of the pandemic, ASARECA has held over 15 virtual meetings using Cisco WebEx, which combines video and audio web conferences, and skpye to plan and track performance in implementing its Medium Term Operational (MTOP-I). Through this platform, Management and staff have kept in touch and appraised each other on milestones earlier set as the Governments in member states extend the lockdown period. This is besides, the various virtual platforms and interactions with various partners, and other virtual processes including electronic approvals, e-procurement committee meetings and e-payments. One of the projects currently being implemented under the “work at home” environment augmented through virtual planning and tracking is the CAAD-XP4 Project funded by the European Union. This project will be handy, post-COVID-19, in boosting of capacities of the national agricultural research systems to generate, process and share information as well as build critical global partnerships to establish systems and a whole range of infrastructure to optimize the use ICTs and disruptive technologies for resilience.
Boosting capacities of the National Agricltural Research Systems to communicate virtually is no longer a luxury
Ministers meet virtually
Using similar technologies, the Continental Agricultural Research for Development arm of the African Union Commission Department for Rural Economy and Agriculture (AUC-DREA) and the FAO convened a virtual meeting of the African Agriculture Ministers on April 16, 2020, to chat a common front for dealing with the livelihoods threatening consequences of COVID-19. The Ministers issued a Declaration committing their governments to prioritize the food and agriculture system as an essential service that must continue to operate during periods of lockdown.
Governments, regional and global AR4D partners are either willingly or left without choice but to up their efforts in prioritizing support to the national agricultural research for development systems to build capacities to utlilize available ICTs including disruptive technologies to build their resilience to sustainably provide much needed agricultural extension, input and output services. At the centre of this will be partnerships with the ICT sector, information and knowledge hubs, development agencies and regional entities charged with the responsibility of complementing national actions.
The Government of Ethiopia has allowed service provider Fintech to provide financial payment services; in Kenya, service provider, Safaricom has reduced mobile payment fees; Ghana introduced, a universal quick-reference code and proxy pay system to accelerate the use of cashless payments; while the Government of South Africa kicked off a process to put in place a tracking system using smartphones to monitor citizens who have tested positive for COVID-19. Many other governments have requested telecom companies to increase Internet speeds and reduce costs, while various mobile money operators have increased their daily transaction limits. To that end, ICT has already become an important tool on the continent.
Previously casually cited in global efforts aimed at keeping societies resilient against unpredictable disasters including effects of climate change, the technologies have become part and parcel of measures that have been fast tracked and intensely used to keep our economies functioning in a time of lockdowns and quarantines.
Limitations and way forward
Limitations, however, still abound. Only 25 per cent of Africans currently use the Internet with a low 4G penetration. If the continent has to deliver digital AR4D services, its telecom infrastructure services require deep investments. Besides, the ICT sector can only get better if enabling legal and regulatory frameworks on cyber security, personal data protection and privacy are put in place.
There is no doubt that when the pandemic is over, the world economy will be increasingly driven by digital technologies. COVID-19 has metaphorically done a good job in bringing ICT back to the fore of priorities. Africa must ride on this development and on the now accelerated ICT supply chain to do its own game. To ensure this inclusion, development and private sector partnerships will be critical in supporting Governments to develop and deepen ICT development policies to implement digital technologies with a view to accelerating the socio-economic transformation of Africa.
The Writer is the Technical Communication Officer