Agricultural Information Networking In Africa: Status And Prospects

George Gundu Shibanda

floral device Abstract

This paper examines the problems of information resource sharing in Africa, with particular attention to agricultural materials. Describes the current international, regional, and national information systems: AGRIS, CARIS, CAB, AGLINET, PADIS, EALS, and others. Proposes means of creating enhanced networking from the existing infrastructure.

floral device Introduction

Information resource sharing has traditionally been a problem in African countries. The answer lies in resource integration via information networking. Networking will ensure wider awareness, faster access, and optimum utilization of the available information resources within the African continent. The following assessment of the existing infrastructure on specialized agricultural information systems and services is meant to suggest the possibility of an agricultural information network for Africa, using the present electronic telecommunication media.

African wealth is derived from agriculture. The health and nutrition of the African populace is at risk unless efforts are made to convert and improve subsistence agriculture. The African economic pattern can be described as under development, but without resources of energy except manpower, without modern methods of cultivation, and without buying power. A vicious cycle exists which should be attacked by industrialization, certainly, but which can be broken more effectively and quickly through agriculture. Progress in agriculture should not be considered as a preliminary to industrialization, but as an indispensable corollary.

The need for improved agriculture calls for the need for improved agricultural research. The need for research therefore calls for the need for improved information. A need exists for the ultimate generation, distribution, access, and consumption of agricultural information in Africa.

floral device Consumer Base

The parties involved in agricultural programs and activities include individuals operating in relevant official departments, educational institutions, research centers and laboratories; and practitioners at farm level. Farmers play a crucial part in agricultural production. They are managers and laborers of their own farm holdings in rural Africa. They must be recognized as information users, despite having a cultural/social/economic background that differs from that of other users. Farmers are certainly the ultimate consumers of the agricultural information, implementors of farm programs and activities, and the final adopters of key agricultural technological recommendations. They seek and require relevant and timely information to aid in their decision–making. As consumers, they may get their information directly from libraries, information centers, and documentation centers, or indirectly through extension agents. What matters to the African farmer is the appropriateness and accessibility of the information, whether it be in print, electronic, or expert advisory service format.

floral device International Information Systems

The International Information Systems for the Agricultural Sciences and Technology (AGRIS)

AGRIS has existed since 1975 under the aegis of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome. It has created a database with other governments and institutions around the world. Its objectives can be described as follows:

  1. To ensure that all countries are provided with comprehensive current information in all fields in which FAO takes interest. Current bibliography is to be in printed form and on magnetic tape. This objective has been achieved through participating countries.
  2. To ensure establishment of specialized information centers through a cooperative network, and therefore provide a database of common interest. Some centers are now operative, and others are pending implementation.

AGRIS membership as of 1986 embraced 127 national centers and 18 regional and international centers. Most participating centers have seen the need to join together and form regional systems in order to coordinate respective AGRIS activities in areas such as training, preparation of reference manuals, regional bibliographies, and computer retrieval access. At present there are regional centers in the Philippines, Senegal, Luxembourg, and Costa Rica.

The AGRIS coordinating center (ACC) is looking into making AGRIS compatible with the Regional Network for Scientific and Technical Information and Documentation (RESADOC). RESADOC has existed since 1979 under the purview of the permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahelian Zone (CILSS). The regional coordinating centers are in Mali, while sectoral centers attached to national centers exist in Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Male, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal.

AGRIS services in all participating centers are supported by AGRIDEX, a computerized monthly index supplied free of charge to all participating centers since 1975. Cumulative indexes are issued covering various years—for instance, 1975–77,1978–79,1983–85. AGROVOC, a multilingual agricultural thesaurus, has been in use since 1983. AGROVOC improves the quality of indexing in French and Spanish. Online access for the AGRIS database is maintained and can be accessed through IAEA in Vienna, Austria; DIMDI in Bonn, Germany; DIALOG in the US; and ESA in Frascati, Italy (ESA is the gateway to IAEA). Twenty–eight member countries provide the input to AGRIS from sub–saharan Africa, although during the period 1985 through June 1987, only 11 African countries actually sent input.

Current Agricultural Information System (CARIS)

CARIS is an international cooperative information system coordinated by FAO. The system is known for providing developing countries with the mechanism to collect and exchange information on respective agricultural research. Users include researchers, agro–economists, planners, and administrators. Cooperating countries include Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo, Botswana, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Zambia, Zaire, Sudan, and Uganda.

Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux (CAB)

CAB members in Africa are Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Those countries have benefitted mainly from the agricultural post–harvest research–based crop information.

Agricultural Libraries Information Network (AGLINET)

AGLINET has existed since the 1970s. Its purpose is to organize at regional and international levels efficient document delivery through cooperation among the large agricultural libraries of the world. It also encourages regional decentralization of responsibilities. AGLINET produces a union list of serials containing journal titles cited in the AGRIS database. The focal points for AGLINET in Africa are the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Kenya, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria.

floral device Regional Information Systems

Pan–African Documentation and Information System (PADIS)

PADIS is the only example of an African continental information network. It is a project of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and aims to provide information to planners and decision–makers. Agricultural information is included.

East African Literature Services (EALS)

This was the only known regional literature service–based system to operate in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Its service depended on the prevailing political will of the three East African countries in the 1970s. Unfortunately, differences among the governments of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania led to its collapse. However, the service continues to operate in Kenya from a base at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

floral device National Information Services

The national information services encompass government parastatals and international systems within country borders. In most African countries, producers of national information services include:

  1. International organizations, including regional centers for world bodies and organizations. Examples are the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), the International Laboratory for Research and Animal Diseases (ILRAD), the International Council for Research and Agroforestry (ICRAF), the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.
  2. Government organizations, which include the National Scientific Information and Documentation Centre, agricultural ministries and departments, the Research Institute and Laboratories, livestock national research stations, and agricultural experimental centers. The existing Kenya Agricultural Research Database (KARD) is an example of a local–initiative database situated at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
  3. Parastatal organizations, including universities, the Research Foundation, and institutes for development studies.

floral device Document Delivery and Cooperation

Materials handled and processed can be either non–conventional or conventional. Generally, non–conventional materials are produced in limited numbers. This can create problems, particularly when attempts are made to get extra copies. Materials come to participating centers from sources far and wide; some sources are in remote areas. It can be difficult to trace the source of certain materials. Add to this poor postal and road services, and the participating centers in Africa find it impossible to exchange materials. In some cases, equipment for reproduction (photocopiers, microfiche duplicators, and microfilming equipment, for example) is inadequate or unavailable. Indeed, there is a general lack of national and regional inter–library document delivery service. For some participating and cooperating centers and institutions, increased costs of reproduction and document delivery services are an inhibiting factor. Perhaps the development and use of coupon schemes needs to be looked into and facilitated. For participating and cooperating centers to take advantage of online access and linkages via satellite and telephone network systems sounds ideal. Yet the inadequacy and cost of telecommunication systems within nations and across regions is discouraging.

floral device Conclusion

Despite inhibiting factors, agricultural information networking needs to be created from the current resource infrastructures. If local sectoral networking is achieved, access and resource sharing will be possible across the board. How? Via the online global Internet through existing linkages and networking of AGRIS, CARIS, and AGRINET systems and services, among others. AGRIS–participating countries, for example, can access IAEA (Vienna), DIMDI (Bonn), ESA (Italy), and DIALOG (US). Country and regional connections among AGRIS, CARIS, AGRINET, CAB, and KARD databases can provide consumers of agricultural information across the African continent with vast resources. But beyond output products such as the printed index, magnetic tapes, CD–ROMs, and the multilingual agricultural thesaurus (AGROVOC), what is really needed is online access. An infrastructure for the African agricultural information systems and services therefore exists. It must be seen as the basis for an agricultural information network across the African continent. Effort must now be directed towards accessing and sharing the available resources. This will mean using and expanding the existing resources, and exploiting the electronic networking potential already in place. The feasibility of an all–African information network has been discussed elsewhere, for example by Umbima [1]. Agricultural material may need to be repackaged: translations, for example, would enable farmers of any status to use the materials. It should not be assumed that AGRINET is only meant to serve the African elite in the agricultural field. Information must also be geared to assist the farmers, the majority of whom are illiterate. Farmers are the ultimate users.

floral device References

1. William Umbima, “Regional Approaches to Information Sharing: An Agricultural Information Network for Africa,” Quarterly Bulletin of the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists 38–2/3 (1993): 110–113.

floral device About the Author

George Gundu Shibanda is Head of Library Services, Chepkoilel Campus College, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya. He has a master’s degree from Loughborough University. Mr. Shibanda’s publications are in publishing, collection development, agricultural information, and user services.

© 1995 George Gundu Shibanda.


Shibanda, George Gundu “Agricultural Information Networking In Africa: Status And Prospects,” World Libraries, Volume 6, Number 1 (Fall 1995).