© Neil Palmer (CIAT) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Every morning and afternoon, Douglas Adjei receives a phone call giving the weather forecasts at his farm in southern Ghana.
It’s thanks to an app called Farmerline, which gives smallholder farmers daily voice-based information in their local language, providing access to critical information on prices, the use of insecticides, and weather information to help with planting crops at the right time.
“There were a lot of things we were missing in our farming,” says Adjei. “Now we can do those things.”
Ghana-based Farmerline, which runs its services in 11 African countries, is just one out of hundreds of tech-based services that have been developed for agriculture in the last five to 10 years.
As well as providing valuable weather data, Farmerline has helped Adjei receive seeds and fertiliser on credit, and get access to crucial knowledge on market prices. After two years of use, he sees the service as a key resource for his farming business.
“Now we know prices better, we know better how to negotiate prices for our products,” he told SciDev.Net.
Services like this are crucial. Ghana has just one agricultural extension officer to help provide agricultural information and advice for roughly every 3,000 farmers.
“Funding to support [extension] services has been cut down over the years, so there’s a huge challenge for these officers to go to the communities to engage with farmers,” explains Worlali Senyo, director of growth, research and development at Farmerline.
“Getting the right information, getting access to inputs, to finance, in order to increase production: you can’t underestimate the importance of that,” he says.
The world’s population is set to hit 9.8 billion by 2050. And as climate change takes hold, it is becoming harder for smallholder farmers to keep raising production to the level needed to feed that population. That’s critical, as smallholder farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food supply in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the African Smallholder Farmers Group.
Solutions such as mobile applications make perfect sense — especially given the growing ubiquity of this technology. Ghana now has more than 1.3 mobile phone subscriptions per person, with mobile industry association GSMA estimating that two-thirds of people have a subscription, and almost a quarter own a smartphone.
Farmerline reports that it has seen revenues for some farmers increase by 50 per cent as a result of using its tools. Its mobile application supports about 100,000 farmers in Ghana and sends out 15,000 voice-based messages there daily.
Wave of entrepreneurs
Farmerline’s story is by no means unique. There is a wave of IT entrepreneurs all over Africa and other regions, often with extensive farming experience, who are rolling out software and applications — from cattle-information services such as the Kenya-based iCow, to weather and soil analysis tools such as Bangladesh-based Mrittikā, and others that help provide loans to farmers, such as FarmDrive, also based in Kenya.
“Farmers are now able to access resources they never could even just five years ago,” says Mary Joseph, director of partnerships and external relations at FarmDrive, which uses data to build credit scores for farmers and aid lending from financial institutions. “This is helping bring African farmers into the digital revolution and improve their farming.”
But applications need proper backing and funding to succeed if they are to avoid perishing as simply great ideas — and for that, they first need people to be aware that they exist.
A tool that seeks to deal with this issue is the Apps4Ag database developed by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), a joint institution established between the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the European Union.
In development since 2014, the database pulls together a range of farming information and communication technologies (ICTs) and mobile applications from around the world in one place, to offer easy insight into what’s available. The main audience is not farmers, but entities such as software developers, development organisations and those that want to invest in integrating ICT into agricultural projects.
CTA’s hope is that increased recognition by investors such as financial institutions or telecoms companies will help developers attract more investment once they reach the stage where their app is on the market, but the initial funding has been used up.
“Let’s say you have millions of farmers subscribing to your system as a result of a push by a project,” says Benjamin Addom, programme coordinator at CTA. “Then you have something for others … to be interested in so that farmers can use the application for free.”
There are more than 400 applications currently on the Apps4Ag database, including Farmerline and FarmDrive, and the project has an open approach to others joining.
The database has a fairly simple interface where people can see which apps are available, basic information about what they do, and their rating on a five-star scale, as well as link through to the developer websites. However, Addom says the goal is to improve the service to enable better search by category and add features such as “visualisation”, allowing users to easily pull up a map of how apps are distributed in a region.
Apps4Ag also wants to add value by providing ratings from app users themselves, rather than anybody as is currently the case. “We want the actual users to give testimony,” says Addom.
Connecting to farmers
There are many challenges that application developers must overcome aside from getting funding.
One issue is the high levels of illiteracy that are common among many farming communities, for example. This is something that Farmerline has tackled by using a voice-based service.
Another is getting sufficient connectivity in rural areas. Esoko, which runs an app targeting African smallholders that’s featured in the Apps4Ag database, counters this with a feature that enables it to work in offline mode: it stores data locally, which can then be uploaded once an internet connection is established.
As more technologies begin to overcome these challenges, Apps4Ag may well provide a good starting point for the crucial step of growing awareness, according to Van Jones, co-founder of Hello Tractor, an Africa-based service included in the database that enables farmers to hire low-cost tractors via SMS.
“For us, having a place where someone with a business mind-set can go and look at our app is super-important to give visibility with the right audience,” Jones says.