Innovation: Advancing ICT use for market access

ICT applications are transforming ACP farmers’ ability to access markets, helping them tap into information about prices and demand, bypass middlemen and build bridges with consumers. Interacting through a ‘faceless’ IT interface is also helping to level the playing field between farmers and traders.

The G-Soko platform has over 1,000 farmers registered in the pilot phase and will be available  to over 5 million farmer members of the Eastern African Grain Council © G. Rambaldi

Many farmers operate in a vacuum, trying to produce as much of the same crop as possible, without necessarily knowing how strong demand is and where, states Janice McLeod, co-founder of AgroCentral, a cloud-based Supplier Relationship Management platform in Jamaica. “What we envisage with AgroCentral is to create a perfect information system where all transactions are transparent, meaning farmers can be more strategic about what they produce to ensure they command the best price,” she says. 

Another innovation that alerts farmers to market trends, helping them plan when and where to sell, is West Africa’s Market Intelligence platform, notes Ben Addom, ICT4D Programme Coordinator at CTA. Although the nature of market forces means that farmers have no absolute guarantee that Market Intelligence’s advice will prove correct, anecdotally it is working well.

Transportation

However, it is no good giving information to a farmer if they do not have the means to act on it, emphasises Addom. Poor roads in many parts of rural Africa, as well as unsuitable vehicles and a lack of preservation facilities, means that produce often spoils before it reaches buyers. 

Nigeria’s Chowberry platform helps overcome this by helping farmers find buyers for produce that is close to expiry. Distributors and retailers list everything from fruit and vegetables to canned goods on the site in order of expiry date and with a price that is discounted accordingly. By creating a ‘quick bridge’ between producers and low-income consumers, like orphanages and old people’s homes, Chowberry helps reduce food wastage and tackle food poverty among low-income groups. At the same time, it helps farmers find new markets for their produce, explains founder Oscar Ekponimo. 

Middle men

The path from farmer to buyer is littered with middlemen who provide a useful service but shrink farmers’ already thin margins. Reducing the need for intermediaries is a key goal for Senegal’s mLouma, which uses a web platform plus SMS and unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) technology to connect the two sides directly, explains mLouma founder Aboubacar Sidy Sonko. 

AgroCentral’s messaging system also allows agro-processors to alert farmers when they have an order they want filling. Farmers can then reply directly by text message. 

Power balance

Farmers often find themselves in a weak position when bargaining with big buyers and traders, especially when face to face, explains Andrianjany Rasoanindrainy at Madagascar’s Farming & Technology for Africa (FTA). FTA’s Rural eMarket platform allows farmers and buyers to advertise their respective supply and demand and matches them up automatically. The problem is often exacerbated by low levels of literacy and perceptions that farmers have a lower socio-economic status than their buyers. Interacting through a ‘faceless’ IT interface that relies purely on supply-demand data can help level the playing field, says Rasoanindrainy. ICT applications can also help reduce the number of intermediaries in the value chain between producer and end consumer, speeding up transactions and improving farmers’ returns.

Scaling up

Scaling up geographically remains a big challenge for agriculture-focused ICT platforms, with many struggling to grow beyond their pilot phase, states Addom. Launched in 2014, CTA’s Building Viable Delivery Models for ICT4Ag project aims to identify common hurdles in this process, as well as solutions. The project has found that for developers to successfully scale up platforms, it is important for them to engage producers or traders from the start. Only with their full buy-in and understanding will it take off, Addom emphasises. 

Partnering with farmer organisations with a view to – in the longer term – handing project ownership over to them, is another model that CTA is testing in Uganda. Launched last year, the MUIIS initiative is an ICT-enabled information service that delivers extension and advisory services to farmers and which also integrates market information. It aims to reach 350,000 farmers within 3 years. 

The Chowberry team are continually working to expand the network of retailers and producers integrated into the platform, which already attracts 3,000 visits per day. Ekponimo aims to sign up 150 new retailers and distributors by the second quarter of 2017 but says that funding remains one of the biggest obstacles to scaling up.

In addition, many ICT developers have to test out multiple approaches before they find one to run with. AgroCentral initially aimed for more than 5,000 users by the end of 2016 but, with currently only around 10% of that number, has decided to concentrate on finding a “secret sauce that works everywhere” before scaling up, says McLeod. The platform started by targeting farmers directly but found it hard to work with such a disparate group efficiently so switched its focus to agro-processors, which already have links with numerous farmers. “It’s been a continuous learning experience,” she adds. “Where we started from is completely different from where we are today.” 

Scaling up successfully requires being able to adapt. Madagascar’s FTA has done just that, re-engineering its Rural eMarket solution to meet the needs of different clients. Developed in partnership with CEFFEL, an advisory network for small farmers, its SIEL application, for example, uses only some of the functions of Rural eMarket. 

Although Rural eMarket had a tough first 3-4 years, it has outlived similar projects with big financial backers and, in March 2016, achieved its first return on investment, says Rasoanindrainy.  

 

Helen Castell

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.