Facilitating rural entrepreneurship through ICTs

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Abid Ilyas Dar/Dr Babar Shahbaz

WE are living in an era of knowledge-based economy where entrepreneurship plays a substantial role in economic uplift and development of a country. An enterprise might be a small business or start-up, but it means a lot for local people, region and the country. Entrepreneurs invest their capital in the form of human, financial and social assets, and they are job creators rather than job seekers. Rural entrepreneurship is particularly important for an agro-based economy like Pakistan. Small and medium enterprises are ideal sources of employment creation with minimal cost. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship culture is not exemplary in Pakistan. According to Washington based Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute, Pakistan ranks at 109th position out of 137 countries in Global Entrepreneur Index (2019).
In the contemporary knowledge economy, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) play a vital role in economic development. Access to relevant and credible information is key to the success of any enterprise. ICTs offer immense opportunities in the form of learning tool, connectivity with experts, market access and clients, quick business solutions and, above all, vital technical and financial information necessary of the success of small start-up. There is no denial to the fact that in the modern world, information technology is the driver of growth and development, but rural areas of Pakistan are characterized with very poor computer literacy. This problem really needs attention of concerned departments and innovative approaches are required in this regard. Youth are the engine of growth of a country and in the context of rural areas they are the future farmers. However, evidence shows that rural youth are least interested to continue farming and they prefer to migrate to urban centres thereby increasing pressure on cities. Entrepreneurship coupled with ICT support offer immense opportunities to attract rural youth in agriculture business. However, Pakistan lags in productive use of ICTs particularly in the rural areas and it is a genuine challenge to promote ICT culture in the rural areas.
No doubt, adversity creates challenges and challenges breed opportunities. The University of Agriculture Faisalabad in collaboration with Engro Fertilizers (Ltd.) initiated a project on “E-Learning for Agricultural Technology Transfer” funded by the Technology Development Fund of Higher Education Commission (HEC) Pakistan. One of the key components of this initiative is to establish Community Outreach Centres in selected villages and provide trainings to young farmers about emerging opportunities in agriculture sector. These community centres are equipped with computers, internet connectivity and relevant software. Trainings were given to the selected volunteers (male & female farmers) from the villages to operate these community centres. These community centres are developed in collaboration with the already developed village-based seed enterprises under an inclusive seed business project (PAVE) focused on creating a shared value. Working strategy of these community centres is based on a simple idea of connecting farmers with the experts from academia and industry along with handholding of the village-based seed enterprises to help them transform into successful & sustainable enterprises.
A scenario with around 90% smallholder farmers mostly relying on traditional subsistence farming with limitations like lack of access to agricultural innovations and modern technologies, building capacities of these resource poor farmers on best crop management practices, seed production and rural entrepreneurship along with developing their linkages have great potential in improving their expertise, productivity and profitability. Scaling up of these digitally connected village based community outreach centres (managed by the trained young male and female volunteer farmers) as hubs of information and resource centres can trigger a silent revolution in rural areas. And, with an enhanced peer to peer learning, improved connectivity and area-specific customized solutions, such initiatives can be vital for the accomplishments of Sustainable Development Goals. With increasing use of smartphones and access to internet in the rural areas, the potential of ICT based e-learning platforms to provide customized information and solutions to farmers has further been amplified. Companies in the agribusinesses, agricultural universities and the relevant research institutes can collaboratively join hands to engage farmers through different ICT based tools to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology to the farming communities and to accelerate quick delivery of the innovations to the farmers in the far flung rural areas. More importantly, making rural women an integral part of such a system can further foster learning and proliferation of the knowledge on best agricultural management practices. Developing community leaders and master trainers from within the communities and helping them to develop village-based enterprises is found triggering a positive change and a transformation with a long-lasting impact. Appreciation workshops to encourage early adopters and bringing early adopters face to face with the other fellow farmers to share their success stories seems cultivating positive change in the behaviours of farmers.
Apart from access to the technical knowledge, ICT is broadening the horizons by connecting farmers with the market information and improves their access to market and the customers from the other areas. Improved awareness helps to reduce the dependence and reliance of the farmers on middlemen/brokers for the sale of their produce and purchase of inputs. Improved knowledge on the quality attributes of their harvests, market information and access to multiple buyers are seen improving farmers’ negotiable skills and help farmers to earn better margins. Similarly, farmers have also started groups on WhatsApp where growers exchange information, buy and sell seeds, harvests and services. Hence, ICT holds a great potential in doing away with asymmetric market information and allowing buyers and sellers of agri-produce to engage proactively for the benefit of both. As the age of modern technology and mass communication dawns upon us, it has become more vital for the public and private sector organizations to collaboratively facilitate farmers so that they can embrace technology with ease and reap benefits from it. If the rural communities are effectively able to harness the potential of this technology, it can act as a growth enabler for them and help them improve their entrepreneurship skills, farm-based incomes and livelihood.
—Abid Ilyas Dar is Project Director at Engro Fertilizers Ltd and Dr Babar Shahbaz is Associate Professor at University of Agriculture Faisalabad.

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