Like any other innovation, the explosion of ICTs and social media has come with merits and demerits in most developing countries. Although it is always tempting to look at the advantages and ignore disadvantages, we can learn a lot from examining both sides. Africa now has millions of WhatsApp groups and other social media-driven platforms. Thousands are formed every day. While it is good that people are talking, finding each other, re-igniting lost relationships and forming new ones, there is so much noise that it is becoming increasingly difficult for good ideas to stand out.
With so many natural resources waiting to be exploited into business opportunities, how can young Africans ignore this noise and focus on what matters? If you ask some of the best entrepreneurs in the world, they will tell you that it takes a quiet, reflective moment for exciting ideas to be transformed into business. If developed countries had the level of noise currently prevalent in Africa, they wouldn’t have found the time, mood, piece of mind and sense of purpose to become industrial economies.
Using ICTs to transform needs into opportunities
One way ICTs can become useful in moving African communities from basic information sharing and chatting to solutions is through enhancing needs identification and assessment. From a development perspective, needs assessments should inform every intervention. Proper and un-biased needs assessment is about gathering information that support decision- making. With the penetration of ICTs into rural and farming areas, communities should be able to use ICTs in identifying, analysing, prioritizing and accomplishing results they really want to achieve. It is not enough to receive agricultural news, for instance. What the mainstream media find newsworthy may not be a useful opportunity for farmers but a diversion from important things. Farming communities can use ICTs to go beyond news and simple surveys but learn to apply creative and engaging techniques that clarify objectives, leading to innovative local solutions.
In most cases, there is a very thin line between social, economic and political needs. Currently what tends to happen in most African countries is that development organisations and policy makers come up with frameworks and programmes before accurately identifying and assessing the needs of intended beneficiaries. In many projects needs assessments are conducted when the proposal has already been written and beneficiaries already identified yet needs should inform the project proposal. As if that is not enough, the process is normally conducted as a once-off activity at project inception yet needs are not static but change during the cause of the project. For instance, under a changing climate, a project intended to support bean production may need to be flexible enough to switch to horticulture or chicken production when a drought suddenly strikes. This means needs assessment should be longitudinal. ICTs can enhance this process.
Going beyond household needs
At the moment, development interventions assess needs at household level only yet these households are supported by many actors who also have their own needs which enable them to support households. For example, value chain actors such as transporters, processors and the market have their own needs which should be understood if agricultural interventions are to be sustainable. Training needs for smallholder farmers are different from those of market actors. On the other hand, policy level needs assessments look at to policy goals.
From an agricultural perspective, needs assessment should embrace a market research strategy to inform production so that farmers are able to meet specific market needs while making a profit. African agriculture still has enormous gaps in pin-pointing actual needs of farmers and rural communities. Most crop varieties, livestock breeds and farming implements are introduced without a strong needs assessment base. That is why you often get the wrong crop varieties in areas where they do not do well and wrong livestock in inappropriate areas. Again, there is so much duplication and waste of resources due to reluctance by development partners to share community needs.
Needs assessment as a practice and not a tool
Needs assessment should be considered a practice rather than a tool. Needs differ by gender, age, religion and location among, among other factors. Using ICTs, communities and value chain actors can constantly update such information. Due to lack of a needs assessment culture, we often end up with generic extension messages. Needs assessment should speak to resource allocation. In many African countries, development interventions are implemented in isolation, leaving out other actors like transporters, processors, market actors and government agencies. Where programmes are not fully informed by needs, they end up providing food aid to all households when particular households require school fees. Some households end up being given cooking oil which they can afford. They end up selling it to get what they really want. If you find farmers selling donated food and inputs, it means there is something they really want.
In support of wealth creation
If properly identified and analysed, needs can be business opportunities waiting to be tapped. As defined under wealth creation, want is slightly above needy. Supporting the want will enable the needy to graduate to another level. This will address issues of exclusion. Unfortunately, most agricultural needs assessment exercises focus on production at the exclusion of markets. There is an assumption that the market is always available. You can’t just assume farmers need finance for production. A real challenge could be lack of a market not finance. Instead of being trapped in trivial issues that scratch the surface, ICTs can support participatory ways of needs identification, assessment and ranking are important. ICTs can also challenge current top-down approaches where policies, proposals and frameworks are developed in urban capital cities and then taken to communities for validation. At that stage it is already too late to integrate local knowledge which speaks to local needs. By ignoring local coping strategies, it is as if development interventions are starting from zero.
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