The Philippines Rice Research Institute(PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Philippines’ Department of Agriculture. It was created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 Nov. 1985 (as amended) to help develop high yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.
PhilRice accomplishes this mission through research, development, and extension through the central and branch stations coordination with a network that includes 57 agencies and 70 seed centers strategically located nationwide.
PhilRice is currently the lead implementer of the Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture(OPAPA).
OPAPA is a network of institutions that provides education, training, extension, and communication in agriculture, making information more accessible to those who need it. With the use of information and communications technology (ICT), OPAPA establishes a virtual network that provides information-on-demand, develops content based on farmers’ needs, and provides access through networks and the internet. PhilRice is currently the lead implementing agency of OPAPA.
Following are the objectives of OPAPA:
1. Use ICT to provide online, web-based services to extension workers and farmers such as advisory, online training, distance learning, e-library, andknowledge databases in agriculture;
2. Tap and optimize existing government ICT infrastructures and network backbones to provide an open learning environment;
3. Organize expertise and digitize all available information, data, and knowledge in agriculture to make them accessible to farmers through the Open Academy; and
4. Link policymakers, scientists, markets, business organizations, and farming communities in an open environment using ICTs.
By taking advantage of various ICT platforms and strategies, OPAPA has optimized the accessibility of research-based agricultural information and services for extension workers, farmers, and other stakeholders.
The following are innovative ICT-enabled platforms and strategies for extension that were introduced by the Project:
Pinoy Farmers’ Text and Call Center (Mobile no. 0920911 1398). This is the Philippines’ first Text and Call Center to provide expert’s advice on rice and rice-based crop production. The text center is a ready lifeline for farmers and extension workers. To date, it has served more than 13,000 farmers and it has answered more than 70,000 text messages.
This is a low-cost short messaging service (SMS) where farmers and extension workers from any part of the country send their queries on rice and rice based technologies. These queries are promptly answered by rice experts. Aside from receiving and sending queries, the Text Center agents also send technology tips on rice production through this facility. Farmers and extension workers who have registered themselves in the Text Center receive regular technology tips from PhilRice. Also, for field problems that are not easy to diagnose, farmers can talk with the experts over the phone or they can send a photo of their diseased rice plant.
Recently, the OPAPA secretariat started to offer pest management topics also through SMS. Interested farmers and extension were requested to enroll themselves through SMS and those who have enrolled received the lessons through SMS. Another service of the Text Center is the price monitoring service where farmers receive wholesale and retail prices of vegetables in major markets. This enables farmers to sell their produce at higher or competitive prices. Moreover, farmers and seed growers need not come to PhilRice to inquire on the availability of seeds. With just a text message, farmers will be able to know the available seeds, which they can also order through SMS.
I reviewed the project titled ‘Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture’ as implemented by the Philippines Rice Research Institute for the 2010 AGFUND prize with the theme ‘Development of Remote and Rural Communities through Information Technology and Communications’. For the review I used the documentation provided by AGFUND and perused the Open Academy website, www.openacademy.ph The proviso for my reviewers’ comments is that I took the External Evaluation report as prepared by the consultants, Ortega et al., 2009; the accompanying letters of recommendation and support; and other associated documents, at face value. The services provided by the OPAPA website were also reviewed in the same context. For a proper evaluation a visit to the remote agricultural areas of the Philippines would be required to gain first hand experience of the impact and extent of the project on real-time agricultural information and technology exchange between farmers, extension workers and technology providers.Using the information at hand, I found the project an excellent example of how farmers in diverse and often remote locations could obtain timely and high quality technological information to improve their production systems and overall livelihoods. The project addressed the barriers to information exchange often experienced by farmers in developing countries through an emphasis on training extension workers and farmers and their families in the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) services – such as the innovative ways of using mobile phone text messaging; internet training and provision of internet access sites, as well as setting up interactive websites with high quality information on production systems.The consultants mentioned that the e-Commerce component, as an original objective, was not fully realized by the project – this is not surprising as this component needs time with farmers needing to gain confidence with internet service provision technologies – assuming banking, credit and payment facilities were even available for transactions to occur seamlessly (such as internet banking, credit card facilities etc.).I found the OPAPA website to be informative and easy to use. An additional benefit of the website is that the information is available in different languages.The project outcomes are well reflected to the AGFUND mission, values and objectives, in that the project addresses:
New development methods which alleviate poverty – through improved agricultural technology provisions
Reduction in social exclusion and less marginalization of vulnerable groups – through empowering farmers and their immediate families with better technology provision (in all areas not just agriculture but also health etc) and providing access to the internet which encourages communication with family and friends in other locations
Stimulate development – through improved knowledge and new skill gained
The project also addresses the main aims of the AGFUND prize as it reflects the main theme for the 2010 prize:
Promotion of human development – through the provision of access to internet training and access sites; access to new technology and information; and education opportunities
Dissemination of development experiences – through the internet the new skill obtained and improved agricultural practices initiated can be discussed on a wider scale
Improvements of living conditions of the poor and disadvantaged – through access to new technology and real-time information it is likely that productivity will improve and in fact, as the consultants (Ortega et al., 2009) pointed out, it is already evident in that participants improved their incomes compared to a control group (information obtained by the consultants through survey)
Exchange of experiences to reduce poverty and reduce the exclusion of vulnerable groups – through the sharing of experiences in the use of internet/SMS facilities by farmers and their families.
Overall I highly recommend the project titled ‘Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture’ as implemented by the Philippines Rice Research Institute for the 2010 AGFUND Prize in Category 3.
The programme is an innovative intervention that through the improvement of Quality of Life can support the fulfillment of the major pillars of AGFUND Development Goals, i.e. health, education, environmental protection etc. However, there are certain areas in the programme that may need improvements not clearly expressed in the documents received.
It is difficult to assess a project based only on documentation, however in the case of the Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture (OPAPA), in addition to the documentation and the online material available, there is a very detailed and professional program end assessment that provides evaluators with a wealth of information. As an additional guarantee, the assessment was also guided by the well known and reputable CIDA/IDRC framework for evaluation.On the basis of the pioneering and successful achievements in the pilot areas, without doubt the Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture deserves to receive the AGFUND Prize 2010 for a project under the third category. This will enable the project to expand its activities to more extension workers and farmers in rural communities throughout the Philippines, as well as undertake more widely agro industry and e-commerce activities.
The objectives of OPAPA are totally in line with the AGFUND mission to alleviate poverty, promoting education, training, and sharing of knowledge, supporting institutional capacity building and development efforts for the improvement of the quality of life of vulnerable and needy communities. In addition, OPAPA’s objectives correspond to AGFUND’s promotion of open education through communication technology.
The project objectives are relevant to the theme of the Prize for third category.
OPAPA has applied a series of ICT technologies, platforms and strategies in an innovative manner to communicate timely information and knowledge to empower extension workers farmers and fisher folk in remote communities and enhance their decision making skills. It provides online, web based services including technical information, advise, online training, distance education, an e-library and knowledge databases in agriculture. It facilitates linkages and dialogue in an open environment among different stakeholders dealing with agricultural innovation, including public institutions, policymakers, scientists, markets, business organizations, extension workers and farming communities.
Reaching farmers without connectivity, the so called “last mile” has been the greatest and most difficult challenge met by OPAPA. A series of different strategies and media to overcome the problems have been used:
Mobile phone technology and SMS text messages are an essential part of Filipino’s lives. At the cost of P 1.00 per text message even farmers can afford it. The mobile phone has proven to be the most preferred tool to access information and to link research, extension and farmers. It was considered affordable, available and easy to operate.
Another innovative strategy to reach out to farmers in remote villages without connectivity has been the use of community radio together with SMS text messages to make agricultural information available to radio listeners. Topics were broadcast through radio and listeners were asked to send their queries through SMS. For example, some 1,000 farmers graduated from this type of school on the air in the Pampanga region. Radio was a popular choice for accessing farm information also in Negros and Alfonso, and reached a wide following of farmers in remote villages, even beyond the intended service areas of the local Farmers Information and Technology Centers.
Again,to reach out to farmers in remote areas, OPAPA created Cyber Communities in twelve different regions.
Virtual consultation through web conferencing was another modality which allowed farmers in remote areas to consult with technical experts.
The Pinoy Farmers Internet Portal is a websitewww.openacademy.phand a knowledge bank of all digitized information and data on agriculture for farmers and extension workers.
The Mobile Internet Bus/Cab/Van was another means of bringing frontline services to rural areas without connectivity, and creating awareness and interest in the potential of ICTs for agricultural development. The end of project assessment survey confirmed the positive effect of the project on people’s income, awareness of technology that helped them improve farm management, marketing of products and improved social interaction. According to the survey, the number of farmers that used their mobiles to get information more than doubled (109%) after the project started. The same was true for agricultural extension workers (129%). The number of farmers using SMS to transact business also increased: those who used their mobile phones to buy products increased by 83.3%, while those who sold products increased by 60%.The survey revealed a 12% increase in annual income of the beneficiaries, with a total farm income increasing by a significant 35 %. There was also a significant increase in the positive perception of the quality of life after the Program by respondent beneficiaries: 46% of respondents reported to have a higher level of quality of life after the Program. 77% felt that they were more satisfied.
Before the training most of the farmers’ yields ranged from 3.5 tons per hectare. But after the training the farmers’ average yield increased to 5-6 tons per hectare. In addition, students in the village also benefited from the computer facilities, for research and other academic purposes.
Collaboration among the partners and the use of shared ICT wares, systems and services resulted in savings both in terms of time and money, at the national and field level. However, the survey indicated that convergence and synergies between partners could have been greater, resulting in improved management, resource utilization and optimization of results, especially at local levels. OPAPA has in large part fulfilled its objectives and even gone beyond expected deliverables in some regions.
With regard to sustainability, the fact that the Government has recognized the accomplishments of the project and endorsed the role of ICTs for the modernization of agriculture in the country is an indication of its potential sustainability. The results of the survey among stakeholders indicated that there is strong commitment in the Government, local government units and among the partner agencies to continue to support and invest in ICTs for agricultural development.
The achievements and lessons learned in the pilot areas can be transferred to other areas in the country, expanding the project into a national program, provided that the Government continue to provide support at national and local levels. The origin of the OPAPA ICT project was a successful ICT project for agricultural development implemented in India by the Swaminathan Foundation. In the same manner the methods and strategies of the OPAPA project in the Philippines could be transferred to other countries having similar conditions and problems related to agricultural development.
Using ITCs for agricultural development requires more than simply providing connectivity. It is a process that requires time before ICTs can be mainstreamed throughout the country, and for farmers to fully benefit from these new technologies. Five years are only a beginning. The project has identified solutions to challenges and problems, especially with the cyber communities that are new and uncharted territory. The project deserves to continue and expand its activities to more regions, provinces and communities.
In designing follow up to the project: it is important to take into account initial gains and lessons learned to improve delivery of services and mainstreaming of ICTs.
Beneficiaries should be involved in all stages of project development and implementation to ensure success and sustainability. Effective feedback and feedforward mechanisms should be established to ensure an interactive dialogue between knowledge generators and beneficiaries. The selection of new sites should take into account the capacity of local stakeholders (government, private, business and local communities) to absorb and support the project. At community level, the support of local government is essential. Similar ICT initiatives should include financing frameworks that would attract private investment, and cost sharing mechanisms between the government and the private sector could be explored. The selection of sites should ensure basic infrastructure such as a reliable source of electricity. There may be a need for an alternative technology, such as radio, that is adaptable to local conditions and a familiar media for communities. Materials should always be produced in local languages. More emphasis should be given to materials for fisher folk, a variety of crops and not only rice, and e-commerce- Cooperation between partners should continue, but convergence and synergies should increase to improve management.
In case the Open Academy for Agriculture is chosen for the AGFUND Prize, OPAPA plans to use the prize money to expand its operations on the following:
Provision of real time market data to farmers, especially those in Mindanao.
Use of the Mobile Internet Bus and Mobile IT Cab for ICT trainings with peace building activities for Christians, Muslims and Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao.
Training of farmers to become entrepreneurs and optimize ICT in growing their businesses.
The project has tested in pilot areas and proven that information and communication technology can become a powerful instrument for the modernization of agriculture in the Philippines. It deserves to receive the AGFUND Prize. The prize money will assist OPAPA to reach more extension workers and farmers in rural areas, especially in Mindanao. According to the UNIDO representative in the Philippines, it will help farmers create new wealth, make a significant contribution to the peace process as well as promote local economic development in Mindanao.