The mandated interconnectivity of agricultural stakeholders to the State has undercut the demand for ICT solutions for agriculture in the past. Many deficits exist in terms of access, accessibility, and simple feasibility of farmer’s use of ICT in Cuba. This section outlines some of the ways in which information and communication technologies are currently being used and some of the obstacles that limit their scalability among all farmers across Cuba.

Photo By: Emily Sylvia

Current use

Mobile communication

ETECSA's 2G GSM-900 network extends to the majority of Cuba's national territory, providing mobile network for voice and SMS service with coverage to most agriculturalists; however, like the rest of the island, farmers do not have access to the Internet outside of WiFi hot spots. Many farmers have access to cell phones, including smartphones, which they use to call, text, and access offline apps and media. Cellphones have become widely available throughout the country in general, having been brought over by foreigners in the informal 'suitcase economy.’ Landlines are also widely available in both residences and businesses in the countryside. Many of the informal food market employees in Havana and other cities coordinate with their food suppliers by phone. Because telephone access — mobile and fixed — is relatively ubiquitous, private farmers and venders can easily rely on their interpersonal connections to facilitate market transactions. One woman at a market in Vedado, Havana, explained that she has a comerciante, or a business associate, who she calls once a week with a “grocery list” of foodstuffs that she needs to restock her market stall. The merchant then communicates with his network of private farmers across Cuba and coordinates delivery and quality control. This process allows her to operate privately while simultaneously ensuring a high-quality and consistent product to sell to her customers. This is just one example of the innovative ways these private agents interact.

Many licensed private market employees have fostered direct relationships with farmers to streamline correspondence and eliminate the need for a middleman. Alberto, a licensed particular market employee, explained that what he has to sell every day at the private market is coordinated via phone calls and delivered the night before on motorbikes by his colleagues outside of Havana. He has established trusting relationships with private farmers as a result of his consistent purchase of their surpluses at a higher price than the State or cooperatives offer. These physical social networks are characteristic of Cuban culture and will be the base upon which ICT solutions will thrive.

MINAG Extension Services: Computers in the Campo

In contrast to the aforementioned person-to-person use of ICT, the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) has a far-reaching network of extension workers that leverage the power of ICT for agriculture. The Ministry of Agriculture’s extension service model is based on the Cuban Agricultural Knowledge and Information System (AKIS), which is founded in systems thinking and emulates the importance of shared information and knowledge about agriculture and the continued expansion of that knowledge in a centrally-coordinated and inclusive way. Though the AKIS is fundamentally a platform for person-to-person interaction and sharing, there are points at which ICT is leveraged for easier communication of ideas and information. According to Dr. Pedro Sanchez and Dr. Cheryl Palm of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, MINAG extension workers have recently begun bringing laptop computers into the field to show farmers on the screen what has been discovered recently by Cuban researchers at various national institutes. This ability to bring technology to the field has served to sensitize farmers to some of the possibilities of ICT in agriculture and opened the conversation to the importance of widespread access to agriculture information on the Internet.

Current deficits

Hotspot locations

ETECSA is attempting to meet the growing demand for Internet access in Cuba with WiFi hot spots in central, public spaces in order to ensure physical accessibility to the widest possible audience. These central locations are often public squares or parks in the hearts of Cuba’s larger towns and cities. However, many farmers live on their land, far from these town centers, making the journey into town to use the WiFi for a short time infeasible and unrealistic. Because of the low returns farmers receive from the State for their production, farmers are usually unwilling to sacrifice time they would spend monitoring their production for travel time to the WiFi hot spots. The economic benefits of WiFi and Internet in Cuba are not yet sufficient (or consistent enough) to convince farmers to make this necessary tradeoff.

Price of use

As mentioned in an earlier section, the price per hour of ETECSA WiFi is 2-3 CUC, depending on the supplier (either a formal ETECSA office or an informal Internet dealer). For a farmer who earns his meager living in CUP (25 CUP is equivalent to 1 CUC), this price is exorbitant and prohibitive. The cost is expensive to even an average, salaried State employee, but farmers cannot afford to sacrifice income for WiFi when the money could be invested in more or better inputs that would allow them to meet their maximum potential yield. Farmers in Cuba have cited price as one of the most common reasons for hot spot avoidance. Until the price is within a reasonable range, many farmers will continue to opt out and be further excluded from learning from the experiences of other countries' agriculture sectors to improve their own production. The prices that ETECSA charges for making and receiving calls on cellphones are also a barrier. As explained in the mobile infrastructure page, all mobile services are priced in CUCs, which farmers often have limited access to. The prices of 0.10 CUC/min for calls and 0.09 CUC per text makes using a cellphone very expensive. Farmers adapt to this by limiting the number of calls they make and keeping their calls as short as possible.

Lack of mobile data service

Though ETECSA is attempting to adapt to demands in mobile services, there is still a lack of data service (3G, 4G, or LTE) options for subscribers. The only 3G network in the country operates in the northern Keys, and is only available as a roaming service to visiting tourists. This lack of telecommunication infrastructure in the countryside inhibits farmers’ ability to connect from their farms and access real-time information. Although a new in-home broadband Internet program is in the process of being rolled out by ETECSA in Havana, it has yet to reach farmers. Access to home Internet would increase farmers’ ability to connect, but the likelihood of a small, private or even state-controlled farm outside of any city to be chosen to participate in this program is very low.

Opportunities for ICT

There is considerable scope for the spread of Cuba's "offline culture" to be extended into the agricultural sector. Since many farmers have already been able to obtain smartphones, there is nothing to prevent the development of offline apps that could be used to help farmers plan their crop rotations, identify pests and diseases, and obtain climatic and meteorological data to help plan farm activities. Since extension workers are actively involved in coordinating agricultural activities, they could serve as facilitators for new technologies that could increase farmers' access to these technologies. Continue to the Agriculture Recommendations page for further information.

Written by: Emily Sylvia and Gary Verburg