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Socio-cultural factors and ICT adoption

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Mar 31 2003, Jamaica [JM], Tanzania [TZ], Livelihood opportunities, Agriculture

How important are local socio-cultural factors in the implementaton of an ICT project? Drawing on research from Jamaica and Tanzania, Marjon Hagenaars concludes that the cultural dimensions of an ICT development project are as important as the organisational, technical and financial dimensions that are normally addressed.

A technology is never only a technical artefact - it is also a social construction. Thus, the meaning given to a technology can differ among regions and among groups of people.

Different perceptions of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by people in less developed or more developed areas are caused by a variety of ‘forces’ present in the local environment in which technologies are introduced. So-called socio-cultural aspects like cultural values, regional priorities, institutional relations, political dynamics, and educational background influence the perception of potential user groups, and therefore have an impact on the adoption and use of the technology. Socio-cultural aspects can be highly influential in the adoption process of ICT services in developing regions but are seldom studied.

Working with International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) supported agricultural projects in Jamaica and Tanzania, four months of fieldwork were carried out in each country. In both countries, ICTs were identified as a crucial component in the strategy to improve the production and marketing of agricultural commodities. Through ICTs, information on prices, volumes, logistics, best practices and intermediate services would be made available to farmers. The provision of information was planned to take place either in a telecentre or via extension officers who would give the information to farmers in printed form or face-to-face.

A few research findings are given here to illustrate the influential character of socio-cultural factors in the agricultural sector in relation to ICT introduction.

Jamaica: higglers, commitment context and the Mac Donald’s Farmers Almanac

In Jamaica, the following socio-cultural aspects influence the role of an information-service for small-scale farmers in the two project regions.

  • ‘Higglers’ (individual small-scale middlemen, mostly women), are the dominant actors in the marketing of crops. They are entrenched in the agricultural distribution system, which makes it very difficult if not inconceivable to operate without them. Higglers are crucial actors in ICT development projects because of their strong relationship with farmers and the important transport functions they fulfil. When ICT development projects cut higglers out of the loop, a project has to expand its own information services between farmers and transporters.
  • Small-scale farmers in Jamaica cultivate and market their produce under dreadful circumstances like drought, expensive inputs, theft of crops from the field and bad roads. For these reasons, farmers prefer to conduct ‘cash-in hand’ business, to sell perishable crops rapidly due to a lack of storage, and to seize the first opportunity to sell their produce as a hedge against perceived impending losses. The farmers who sell directly to processors or exporters often do not feel obliged to live up to commitments they made to those buyers. Even if they signed a contract at a factory, it is not uncommon that a farmer will sell his produce to a higher bidder. This mentality, which is understandable in the current context of small-scale farmers, does not meet the presupposed marketing-practice within the ICT projects where it is expected that farmers will sell according to promises they made.
  • Apart from informal contacts and trustworthy acquaintances considered as reliable information sources, many farmers also rely on the authority of the ‘MacDonald’s Farmers Almanac’. This booklet tells farmers when to plant and harvest by the position of the moon. It contains predictions per year about crops, the weather, sickness, lucky days and future events. To make the ICT-services less alien to farmers and to meet a practice they are used to, the ICT services could incorporate some of the familiar indigenous local knowledge and planting directions of the MacDonald’s Almanac.
Tanzania: community-feeling, information as social construction and corrupted scales

In Tanzania’s Magu District, examples of socio-cultural factors influencing ICT adoption were:

  • The majority of people in the project-region belong to the Sukuma ethnic group. Characterized by a strong community feeling, this group does not tend to appreciate movement away from communal activities or the carrying out of individual initiatives. Harmony is thought to be very important and, to achieve this, individual actions should conform to collective standards. This means that an ICT system should serve collective well-being and not be introduced as a means that supports the well-being of individuals.
  • In Western societies, people are challenged to learn, are rewarded for development, and it is not regarded as unusual to strive for ‘more’ and to be ‘better’ at certain tasks. In Magu District, it is not normal to focus on improvement, to be eager to learn or to aim at higher achievements than others. It can even be a disadvantage to retrieve a lot of information or to express one’s knowledge. Elevating oneself above the average community level can result in social sanctions. Many ICT projects assume that individual small-scale farmers value access to agricultural information and that they feel free to act on it. In such communities, a more effective introduyction strategy may be to stress that information is for collective use, and that it benefits the whole community.
  • Many small-scale farmers in Magu District complain that the scales used by middlemen to weigh their produce are incorrect. While an ICT service might provide farmers with adequate price information, the use of biased scales by middlemen means that farmers will still be taken advantage of. An ICT project could have added value if it can expand services by directing farmers to independent weighing locations, or if reliable people employed within the project carry out this weighing service. As well as the farmers, such a service may also be welcomed by the middlemen if it includes a basic quality check. Middlemen and processors complain that farmers offer their produce wet in order to increase its weight, and that they mix different grades of cotton.

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