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June 29, 2011

Solar-powered information center helps Zambian farmers

by Georgina Smith

Rows of mobile telephones sit recharging in the Chinyunya community telecentre, an hour's drive east of Zambia's capital Lusaka. Powered by 67 1 x 0.5m solar panels and offering a photocopier, projector and three internet-connected computers as well as phone services, the centre is changing the way that farmers in the area receive agricultural information.

Whether it's investigating drought-resistant plants, choosing the best crop rotation, or learning how to retain water in the soil, the internet offers ideas and solutions which can be refined or adapted in discussion with extension officers. The telecentre acts as a point for sharing and accessing previously unavailable information on market prices, machinery and fertiliser availability, and is a networking hub for local agricultural training centres offering advice on organic farming and other practices.

The Chinyunya centre, set up in 2006 with support from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), is a typical telecentre, offering internet and radio access, photocopying facilities, mobile phone charging and credit sales, and hard copy brochures and factsheets on good farming practices. Its impressive expanse of solar panels is connected to a series of rechargeable cells, leading to a monthly power bill of just 100,000 Zambian kwacha (US$21) for battery water.

Manager Samson Chinyonga..."Farmers come to ask for information like how to rear chickens, what chemicals to spray and how to look for markets," he says.

Calvin Kaleyi, spokesman for the Zambia National Farmers Union, believes that while only a minority of people in the country have access to the internet, information centres are hugely beneficial to local communities. "There are other, more traditional ways of spreading information," he says. "But when people are in a big group, usually they are not that effective. At the information centres, small groups of people ask specific questions."

Chinyonga is convinced that telecentres hold the key to empowering future generations...: "They are an excellent idea. They serve as a vehicle of development for rural communities by empowering them with ICT skills and reducing the digital divide between the rural and urban community."

New Agriculturalist

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