Leadership (Abuja)

9 December 2012

Nigeria: Revamping the Agricultural Sector Through Voice Internet Technology

Voice Internet Technology has been used in developed countries and some developing nations to generate 75 per cent revenue especially in the agriculture by allowing local farmers to access markets and information through the internet and the phone. Evelyn Okoruwa writes on the benefits it can bring to the Nigerian economy if put to test.

Most African countries especially Nigeria has for decades been known to be a consumer nation, importing almost everything like clothes, food, toothpaste, computers, phones and lots more, whereas it has been argued that they ought to be producing and exporting these products themselves.

Experts have noted that because it has been like that for generations, it has been seen as normal. Citing an example from agriculture which used to be the main stay of the Nigerian economy but now sadly depends solely on oil, if attention is given to the sector, it would yield as much revenue as oil, if not more. Sadly, because of the neglect, only a few illiterate ones are into farming.

These ones don't know about the existing technologies to boost production and preservation. They therefore make huge losses. Citing Benue state as a classic example, every year, though a lot is harvested yet because of poor transportation and storage system, these products are allowed to waste resulting in a big loss to the farmers.

Experts say ICT would be the solution to the problems. Example is the new technology called voice internet browser that has been used in other countries to successfully solve the problems of wastage especially in the agricultural sector. The device would enable farmers to access other markets through the internet and phones thereby increasing their knowledge and ultimately sales.

Even in the energy sector, experts have hinted that more can be achieved through ICT. According to Dr. Emdad khan," Oil is so important but there is also an alternative energy like bio-fuel, that can be used to generate income by converting oxide into gas.

The Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson had stated that ICT is important for development to take place, "We use internet for commerce, health, education. Giving people access to the internet is not only for the social media, we use it for development. We use it to teach our children, we use it in the universities to learn, to research and to engage in other activities. We are using in it health and we can use it more than we are using it now."

Dr. Emdad Khan, Founder of the Internet Speech Incorporated while explaining further on the voice internet technology noted that it will allow people who do not speak English to have access the internet facility. Such people, he said, have major problem using the internet because it is purely about English. Because of this, non English speakers or illiterates are left out from the major parts of the continent.

Through this technology, he said, the facility can be transferred into Nigeria's local languages and help people to get information in the local language. According to him, "We are in the information age, information is money and time is money, so you can see that providing information is very important. Information is highest on the internet, meaning the internet is the largest source of information, and then if you can provide the internet, then you are providing information and money."

Explaining further, he stated that since there are about 550 million computers in this world as opposed to over 5 billion phones, providing internet through the computer will take a long time but if the services can be provided over the phone, then over 5.2 billion will get access. "Most people in the developed countries cannot read because some are illiterates, providing internet to them by text based visual display is not going to help.

So, we are also working with the United Nations to get voice based internet worldwide so that we can easily preach the digital device worldwide which includes voice internet, or voice based mechanism", he said. He revealed that 1 per cent of the rich people in this whole world own 40 per cent of the world's wealth, and 10 per cent of the rich people own 80 per cent of the world wealth but that 60 per cent of the population which is about 4 billion live in poverty out of the 7 billion people on the earth.

He however noted that though ICT is a must, giving out ICT is not enough, because for everyone to access the internet, it has to be understandable and use able in their day- to-day affairs.

"In Nigeria we buy things from the rest of the world, we buy computers, phones, toothpaste, foods, clothing almost everything from other countries, because it has been happening from generation to generation; people in general think we are a consuming country basically because we buy things but we have the same brain, why can't we produce? What's preventing us from producing? Actually nothing is preventing us? Logically ,we should be able to produce very soon."

Speaking more on the voice technology, he noted that the technology has increased revenue for several countries by 75 per cent and can provide all features of internet including surfing, audio browsing, searching, sending and receiving e-mail, doing e-health, e-learning, e-commerce, and e-agriculture capabilities.

He noted that Nigeria who used to export food some years back now imports them due to the state of agricultural activities in the country, saying that's why the technology would focus more on the agricultural sector in order to make the country to regain its past glory in the sector.

"One fifth of Nigeria's land can feed the whole of Africa. Few years ago, Nigeria used to export food, but now imports food which we believe is not the right thing to do because sitting on a fertile land which is a great gift from God, we will like to work together to really improve the farming process and make Nigeria fruitful and improve its economic condition."

The application, he said, would also be useful in disseminating health information to the grass roots and assist illiterate farmers to accessing markets around the world in addition to providing new technologies in farming.

On how the technology works, he explained that the voice internet technology uses an Intelligent Agent (IA) that performs key tasks which include automating communication between a telephone and the internet and thereby extracting key information from a web page. Noting the IA has the ability to extract only relevant information and read it to the end user.

"Voice internet is a way to access the internet using any phone and user voice without a computer. A user calls a phone number and talks to an auto attendant (voice internet intelligent agent ( IA) who provides various options like surfing, searching, email, e-service, news, podcast, social network and the like.

Once a choice is made, say surfing, IA retrieves the desired information and read the content over the phone. The user can easily navigate from page to page, within a page, and between websites. He can easily interact with all on-line application by filling forms."

"The IA also interprets the contents of a web page and renders visual website content to be very user friendly, easily navigable and meaningful audio text contents. Bridging the digital and language divide using voice internet has direct impact on economic, social, cultural and other development in Nigeria." He added.

Prof. Victor Mbarika, President ICT University Louisiana USA while explaining more on Internet Speech, stated that the application can make sure sustainable development is achieved in Africa. He noted that most developing countries are still about 65 per cent rural making the population of illiterate class more than that of the literate class.

He opined that since the new application is voice inclined and can translate words to Nigerian local languages, such as Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo Ibibio and several other languages, the people at the bottom of the ladder would be able to access the internet especially farmers because the predominant occupation of the rural dwellers is farming.

"They would now be able to access the internet to know about new technologies, so that they would be able to improve their farming methods. They would also be able to access markets around the world through the internet to be able to sell their agricultural produces, thereby eliminating wastage that was so pre-eminent before now."

"If we are really serious in sub-Saharan Africa of sustainable development, we must take a look at this set of people. Most developing countries are still 65 per cent rural. It's still a very high rural population, so when we talk about them accessing the internet, this is really a good initiative." He added further that the new technology would help rural communities in accessing health care through the internet.

"Several African governments in ICT area have invested a lot of money in web portals for the government. That is why we had this website for the Ministry of Health for rural women to access health care. How can they access this health care if they can't read or write? Internet Speech is answering that issue and providing a way for these rural people to be able to call in and get information on how to take care of their babies."

People with disability are not left out of enjoining the benefits of this application, the voice internet can enable the blind to be able to dial and access the internet. "The accessibility especially for the blind and the disabled people is great. They need to buy computers and the software which is expensive, and then they need training for about 5, 6 months on how to learn to use their system but the voice internet just takes 1 or 2 days sometimes less than that, you don't need a system, you don't need a software, more importantly to the illiterate people, even if they can see something, they are sort of blind, so this is very important to them also." Prof. Mbarika added.

Mr. David Omo another ICT expert hinted that the technology is a welcomed one in Nigeria as it can repair the Nigerian economy, according to him, "Since other countries have recorded 75 per cent increase in revenue generated, Nigeria should not be different."

Dr. Khan opined that in Zambia, farmers now earn about USD10 to USD12 per day, which is very significant compared to what they were getting before as 90 per cent tomatoes and mangoes get wasted in Zambia before now because many of the farmers don't know how to preserve them.

On how the application would work, Dr. Khan noted that it would be specific like the farming application which would deal only on farming issues. "In farming, the discussion will be farming related, it is not going to have discussions for news, or weather."

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