The San Juan Star / February 7, 1996
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Latin America's farmers -- long used to relying on outdated information, cash-strapped governments and each other for advice -- are being urged to give up their old ways and join the Internet.
Newly formed Agrinet Americas is a partnership between three disparate entities: Miami-based Internet access provider Innovative Telematics Inc. (Itinet), long-distance carrier Sprint International and Caribbean/Latin American Action, a Washington lobby group that promotes regional investment. The idea is to link the region's growers, exporters, importers and government officials via computer in order to boost sales and productivity while cutting the cost of doing business.
Josť Lepervanche, vice-president of Itinet, whose Miami company has between 18,000 and 20,000 users in Latin America, calls Agrinet Americas "an integrated global agri-information network" for the entire region.
"We're hoping for 300 to 400 users per country," said Lepervanche. "Sprint provides the lines and the data network, and we provide the host computers. The service costs around $10 an hour, though that varies from country to country depending on the local service provider."
Regardless of the cost, every nation in the hemisphere except Ecuador and Paraguay has access to Sprint's X.25 data network, which is the "gateway" for Agrinet Americas. Lepervancho, a Venezuelan, added that "people in Cuba can download if they're on the Web, but they can't be subscribers."
The lack of up-to-date agribusiness information can be devastating for those in the fruit and vegetable trade, said Rodolfo Garcia, executive director for international network solutions at Sprint International in Reston, Va.
"Farmers in one part of Peru were selling potatoes for a few cents, while in another part of Peru they were desperate for potatoes, which were very scarce," said Garcia, recalling a recent visit to his native country. "The point is, even though we're making an initial effort, it is indispensable for the development of their countries that governments establish a telecom network that could help the dissemination of trade information -- not only for international but also for domestic applications."
Adds Roger Sattler, an executive of NTGargiulo L.P. in Washington: "The agriculture industry tends to lag behind when it comes to information technology, especially compared to professional services like insurance, banking and medicine."
In fact, it was Sattler who first thought up the idea of an agribusiness network, coined it Agro Americas Inc. and presented it to participants at the 1994 Miami Conference on the Caribbean. After a falling-out with C/LAA's executive director, Peter Johnson, Sattler resigned from the organization's board of directors and withdrew from the project. The name was changed to Agrinet Americas following legal questions over C/LAA's right to use the Agro Americas trademark.
Regardless of what it's called, the network as it now structured will help small, medium and large farmers market their products, says David Black, an official of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture in Washington.
"For the first time, the ministries of agriculture in each country will consult with private-sector people to determine what their needs are," says Black, whose agency -- an arm of the Organization of American States -- has offices in most Latin American nations.
"Through IICA and Caribbean/Latin American Action," said Black, "they can all work together on a much more efficient basis, using government resources, manpower and facilities to help increase production and exports."
Added John Ruland, managing director of Jamaica Flour Mills Ltd. in Kingston: "We'll be able to get fairly current information regarding quantities, values and marketing problems of competing countries, in addition to data on the destination site, for instance, or the price of specific commodities at the New Orleans port of entry."
Under the original concept, agribusiness executives would pay an annual fee of several hundred dollars, and enjoy access to as much information as they wanted. The current plan is to charge users only for on-line time, which in the long run ends up being much cheaper, thus making the service available to far more users.
To encourage growers and exporters to learn, Agrinet Americas will offer its subscribers training and education, and will provide the business and computer skills needed for modern commerce -- as well as overcoming cultural and language barriers that can hinder such commerce.