Promoting the use of information management system in the Ethiopian sesame sector: Lessons learned from BENEFIT-SBN
From 2016-2019, one of Sesame Business Network (SBN)’s initiatives focused on promoting the use of information management system in the Ethiopia sesame sector. The effort that started with an Excel database in 2016-2017, evolved into a sector management information system, based on a tailored, more advanced software application. The pilot was implemented in 2018-2019 in four kebeles, with a vision of having a public digital information management system that is up-to-date, reliable and accessible, supporting all sector stakeholders and paid through a levy system.
Specific objectives of the pilot included: (i) support transparency with a public database; (ii) facilitate the provision of public services by government agencies to farmers; (iii) promote in-depth sector analysis through customized reports; (iv) digitize member administration of cooperatives; and (v) support information exchange between cooperatives and unions.
With increased access to computers and the internet, public agencies and farmers’ organizations in the commercial sesame sector are increasingly showing interest in using digitalized information system to gather, share and use consolidated information for professional planning, management, transparency, collaboration and trade.
The process of providing the Excel database and developing the digital information system, which included working with handheld devices and software, training and frequent discussions have raised the awareness of stakeholders on the importance of reliable digitalized field data. As partners in tailoring the software, they have gained insights about how to: i) work with software programs, ii) structure and prioritize information iii) organize data collection and quality control, iv) exchange information with other partners and v) analyse data and produce a report.
The process over the years
The first step towards information management was the establishment of woreda databases in Excel, which is a widely available and known tool. Databases were developed, based on available information on key parameters such as population, land, cultivated acreages for different crops, production, productivity and market prices. Whenever possible, attention was given to disaggregate information according to gender and age. By the end of 2017, the databases were handed over to 13 woredas, with appropriate training on how to use and maintain it.
In 2018, two digital information systems were introduced (FarmForce and eProd). Both systems were specifically developed for smallholder agricultural production and marketed in remote areas. They work with a mobile application to collect field level data, including GPS references. A desktop application allows for extensive analyses of collected data and can generate several reports.
Several stakeholders of the sesame sector, BoA, CPO, unions and cooperatives, have been involved to build a sector-wide information management system that meets their data and information needs. Based on the eProd software, which was further developed and tailored for the sesame sector, the piloting was done in two kebeles in Tigray and two kebeles in Amhara regions. By the end of 2019, field and farmer information was entered in the system for four kebeles (6,677 farmers), two kebeles in Amhara (3,038 farmers) and two in Tigray (3,639 farmers).
- Limited infrastructure and human capacity. Stakeholders hardly own functional hardware to install the software. Power cuts, virus infections and damaged hardware make installation and reliable functioning of the software challenging. In addition, stakeholders have limited experience to work with computers and any type of software. As a result, the training of dedicated staff members was time-consuming, compounded by high staff turnover.
- Start from a simple solution and have a multi step introductory approach. The Excel based woreda databases featured several benefits like low cost, easy understanding and use, and flexible formats. In the context of non-existing digital data collection practices and a non conducive environment, a more incremental approach, with a modest scope at the beginning, reduces the time and investments for getting a digital information system up and running. This reduces the risk of errors and limited use of the information system.
- Software customization. The software was adapted to accommodate specific needs and translated in local languages. Translation from English to Amharic and Tigrinya was a very time consuming exercise. A tailor-made system increases the likelihood of relevancy and future use by local stakeholders.
- User friendliness. Some software interfaces are more intuitive and easier to use than others. A combination of a simple mobile and advanced desktop application is a good solution to accommodate the different stakeholder capacities and needs.
- Offline functionality. In a context of unreliable access to internet, an offline system is a valuable asset.
- Data collection and modification. Data collection in the field, including GPS referencing, takes time. Stakeholder expectations and data correction need to be carefully managed. Moreover, if data entering or correction is not carefully managed or users can easily modify the format (Excel), data quality and aggregation are at risk. Digitized systems and consistent processes can help to reduce this risk.
- Data aggregation and multi-stakeholder accessibility. Software systems make it easy to aggregate data at different administrative levels (e.g. from kebeles to woreda, zone and regional level). The generic information can be easily accessed by various stakeholders, who can add and manage additional information streams according to their specific needs. This requires dedicated, competent staff.
- Community acceptance. The most important data input providers are farmers. Providing personal information requires trust and understanding. Careful introduction with the help of community leaders or local authorities is key. Clear benefits, such as weather forecast services and others, enhance the likelihood of acceptance.
- Stakeholder support and benefits. Bureau of Agriculture (BoA) and unions supported the hosting of staff and shared costs for transport (motorcycles). This contribution is important, especially for creating ownership. Benefits of the information system stimulate users to make an effort and invest.
- Technical assistance. Digital tools are complicated and can face many technical problems. A computer expert who knows the information system is needed to support stakeholders with any challenges they face along the way.
- Sustainability/affordability of scaling. The introduction of advanced information management systems comes at high implementation costs (field staff and experts, computers, phones, motorbikes). System licenses are often expensive and require yearly payments in forex, which is an issue in Ethiopia.
- Integration into daily processes. The organisations participating in the pilot are used to a certain way of working and procedures. Integrating a new information management system in their daily work routines is a major challenge. This requires the support and commitment of higher officials.
- Moving towards a digital information system is a long process. During the past years, the pilot in the mentioned four pilot kebeles is a first proof of concept. The next step is to explain the process, lessons learnt and current proof of concept to higher officials of different stakeholder organizations, who increasingly believe the need for a digital system. High level buy-in can facilitate the change of work routines and the search for sustainable funding, for which a levy system is a possible solution.