The importance of agriculture as a source of livelihoods cannot be overestimated: half of the world's population works in agriculture and approximately 2 billion people gain their livelihoods from small farms in developing countries(UNDP, 2015; IFAD, 2013; FAO, 2009). It is estimated that smallholder farmers provide over 80 percent of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa, despite remaining the poorest and most food-insecure people in the world. Increasing the productivity of smallholder farming in a sustainable manner holds great potential for boosting the incomes and securing the livelihoods of smallholders themselves(IFAD, 2013; FAO, 2009).
The productivity of agriculture and smallholder farming is far below its potential. This is the result of many challenges facing smallholders and the companies working with them. Smallholder farmers often lack skills and knowledge; have limited access to credit, inputs and market information; and increasingly face climate-related risks, which threaten their yields. The potential benefits of using mobile phones to connect these diverse stakeholders along the agricultural value chain speak for themselves. For rural populations, geographically dispersed and isolated from knowledge centers, the information and communication capabilities of the mobile phone can be even more valuable. Close to 6 billion phones are in use today and are accessible to the 70 percent or so of the world's poor whose main source of income and employment comes from the agricultural sector (World Bank 2012).
The above situation shows that market access is one of the most important factors influencing the performance of smallholder agriculture in developing countries, and in particular least developed countries (Barrett, 2008). Access to new and better-paying markets for agricultural products is vital in enhancing and diversifying the livelihoods of poor subsistence or semi-subsistence farmers (Barrett, 2008). Such markets can be local (including village markets), catering for the local populations, regional markets that serve regional consumers in counties/districts/provinces within one country or between countries, and international/export markets in both developed and developing countries.
Smallholder producers form the majority of both the total and rural poor in many developing countries, especially Africa. Most smallholder farmers are engaged in subsistence and semi-subsistence agriculture with low productivity, low marketable surplus (hence low returns) and low investment, a situation described as low equilibrium poverty trap (Barrett & Swallow, 2006; Barrett, 2008). Enhancing returns from agricultural production through improved access to markets can therefore be a vital element of poverty alleviation strategy and livelihood improvement in these countries. Improved market access results in commercialization of agriculture, which has short, medium, and long-term benefits to farmers. In the short term, market access can result in the production of marketable surplus and hence gains in income from agriculture. In the medium to long-run, the surplus from improved market access can result in higher revenues, savings and hence investment in productivity enhancing technologies. The effect of market access for smallholder farmers is even greater for high-value commodities (i.e., non-traditional, non-staple crops such as high-value fruits and vegetables and organic products). Access to markets for high value commodities has multiple benefits to smallholder producers (Okello, 2005; Okello & Swinton, 2007). Such benefits include direct income for smallholder producers and the indirect impacts at both the household and community levels in terms of employment.
Despite its importance, market access in many developing countries remains severely constrained by poor access to agricultural and market information. Poor access to market information results in information-related problems namely moral hazard and adverse selection which in turn increase transaction costs and hence discourage participation in the market by some farmers (Omamo, 1998; Fafchamps & Hill, 2005; Shiferaw, Obare & Muricho, 2009). Recent attempts to resolve the problem of poor access to better performing markets by smallholder farmers have thus focused on promoting information transfer through ICT-based innovations (Tollens, 2006; Aker, 2008). These innovations include mobile telephony, internet/web-based means, and interactive video and CD-ROM programs as well as older ICT-based technologies namely the radio and television (Munyua, 2007). The promotion of these mostly new generation ICT tools especially the mobile phones stems from its rapid penetration in Africa and increased ownership by rural households (Okello et al., 2010).
The increased focus on modern ICT-based methods of information provision comes from the realization that they can play a major role in i) communicating knowledge and information to rural farmers, ii) delivering education and training modules to farmers at low cost, iii) improving smallholder farmers' access to markets and agricultural credit, iv) empowering farmers to negotiate better prices, and v) facilitating and strengthening networking among smallholder farmers especially women farmers.
ICTs can be a powerful tool to empower women. Women empowerment is a current global issue and discussion on women right is at the forefront of many formal and informal campaigns worldwide. The first state of women empowerment is women awakening to the facts of their existence. The concept of women empowerment throughout the world has its root in women's movement (Sharma and Maheshwari, 2015). Empowerment is a process that enables women to gain access to and control of material--intellectual and human resources. Empowerment is the redistribution of power that challenges patriarchal ideology and male dominance.
Despite the great enthusiasm by development agencies in promoting the application of ICT tools in transferring agricultural information to farmers, little is known about the use of these tools for agricultural value chain promotion and transactions among women farmers in peri-urban areas of Imo State. This study examines the agricultural value chain information needs of peri-urban women farmers; information technology tools/devices available to them and ICT roles in promoting agricultural value chain in Imo State, Nigeria.
Brief literature on agricultural value chain and peri-urban
Value chains are relationships where actors are linked in...