Do mobile apps really add value for smallholder farmers?

Heike Baumüller

The impacts of apps are yet to be proven

Rural areas in Africa continue to suffer from poorly developed infrastructure, weak extension services and limited job and income opportunities. Many smallholder farmers face challenges in accessing information on farming methods, weather trends or prices. These farmers are also often disconnected from input and output markets and lack financial services, such as insurance, loans or banking facilities, which could help them to mitigate risks and better manage their farming operations. High hopes are being pinned on the potential of mobile phones to offer such services to the continent’s smallholders. The rapid spread of mobile handsets and the initial hype about the technology’s potential have attracted investments in mobile phone-enabled solutions for farmers. This development is also driven by an emerging start-up community in many African countries looking for business opportunities.

Breaking down the benefits

Today, numerous apps are on offer for smallholder farmers and the belief in their potential prevails. But what do we really know about their impacts? The short answer is: not much. Empirical evidence on the impacts of apps is thin. Many apps have yet to reach scale due, among other reasons, to a lack of good business models, limited access to finance and difficulties in marketing, thus making it difficult to study their transformative potential. Moreover, the development of mobile apps in Africa is increasingly driven by the private sector. While these service providers undertake their own evaluations, they have little incentive to share their data, which would enable an assessment of the app’s usage, users and impact.

Among the empirical studies published to date, most have focused on information services and to a lesser extent on marketing and mobile money (reviewed in Baumüller 2018). The literature allows us to draw some preliminary conclusions. Farmers often report to have benefitted from information services, mainly through improved production planning and better management of weather-related risks. While this is also true in the case of price information, the positive perceptions are not necessarily borne out by collected price data. Most studies that examine mobile-phone assisted marketing concur that mobile apps have had limited impacts on market structures and trading patterns, which remain largely unchanged due to other constraints, such as the lack of alternative marketing options or dependence on the buyer for credit or inputs. Mobile money mainly benefits farmers by enabling them to receive money more easily, notably remittances.

Filling the gaps in research

However, there is much more that we do not know than we do know. Existing studies on mobile phone-enabled services for smallholders are for the most part narrow in their methodologies and focus. Most rely on perception surveys and few collect other kinds of data or run controlled experiments. As a result, objective measures of impacts are often missing. Besides, the literature commonly differentiates between users and non-users, but little effort has been made to study different user groups by gender, level of education or social standing, for instance. Nor has there been an effort to identify the actual usage of apps, let alone to link impacts of these apps to usage patterns or user types.

Many apps, including those for farm and supply chain management, training and education, insurance, credit or social networks, have not been sufficiently studied to allow us to draw meaningful conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, studies rarely take into account the context in which a mobile service is provided, for instance, by comparing the app with other channels for delivering the same service or examining contextual constraints that prevent farmers from taking advantage of the service on offer.

Mobile apps certainly have a place in the toolkit of measures that can support smallholder farmers in Africa, provided that they are embedded in broader agricultural development strategies and supportive legal and institutional frameworks. However, better research is needed to inform their design and ensure that mobile solutions are problem- rather than technology-led. It is also important to bear in mind that technologies and people change and, therefore, the opportunities for providing app-based services to smallholder farmers will shift too. For now, intermediaries, such as processors, extension agents, farmers’ organisations or agro-dealers, can play an important role in facilitating the usage of mobile solutions by handling the complexity of the service. As technologies evolve, digital literacy improves and rural areas develop, farmers will be able to move up the technology ladder to take advantage of the mobile revolution in agriculture.

This article is based on Baumüller, H. (2018) The little we know: An exploratory literature review on the utility of mobile phone-enabled services for smallholder farmers, Journal of International Development 30(1): 134–154. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/y7lgz35h

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.