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EcoFarmer: bundling information and financial services


Field report from Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s mobile network, Econet Wireless, is providing farmers with micro-insurance to cover crops and inputs against damage due to poor weather. The EcoFarmer subscription platform offers farmers a package of mobile phone delivered services to increase their productivity and mitigate risk.

Mobile phone services in Zimbabwe have, in recent years, been revolutionised by Econet Wireless, the country’s largest telecommunications services company, achieving more than 97% mobile phone penetration. However, critically for farmers, as well as providing mobile internet access and payment solutions, the company offers subscriptions to the EcoFarmer mobile platform, which delivers a range of services, including weather-based insurance, to farmers via SMS and voice-based messages to their mobile phones. The platform is specifically designed to be accessed using a basic mobile phone to enable customers at the lower end of the economic pyramid to access and receive the services.

Developed over 3 years ago, EcoFarmer provides innovative micro-insurance for farmers to insure inputs and crops against poor weather, such as drought or excessive rainfall. For example, Econet has partnered with Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union (ZFU) – which represents more than 1 million farming households – to provide the ‘ZFU-EcoFarmer Combo’. A €0.89 monthly subscription provides farmers with ZFU membership, from which they receive training in best farming practices, and EcoSure funeral insurance cover for individual farmers (dependents can be added for an extra cost); as well as maize production or cattle rearing tips and weather index insurance to cover maize crop failure for one season.

Elizabeth Tshuma, a 67-year old livestock and horticulture farmer on the outskirts of Bulawayo city, is a ZFU-EcoFarmer Combo subscriber. “In the past, I have had to worry about the loss of a family member and how to meet funeral costs but the ZFU-EcoFarmer Combo has solved my problems because my subscription takes care of this need,” states Tshuma. “The insurance for my crops is ideal, especially with the drought we experienced in 2016 and too much rain this year,” she adds. Tshuma – who also breeds cattle and goats and rears indigenous chickens – says that through EcoFarmer’s Dial-a-Mudhumeni (extension officer) service, provided in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, she can call in for free to get timely farming information and advice on rearing her livestock. Tshuma’s neighbour, Magaret Gauti Mpofu, says she will be joining the insurance scheme after hearing of the EcoSure pay out for funeral insurance from other farmers. The opportunity to receive farming and weather information through the service is also important to Gauti Mpofu, as she knows that access to such data makes a real difference to her farming.

Econet’s chief executive officer, Douglas Mboweni, explains that any farmer can freely register for EcoFarmer services through their mobile phone; they are then asked to provide their location details and farm type. Using this information, EcoFarmer aims to ‘location profile’ farmers to provide information specific to their farming area. Mboweni is confident that Econet fosters financial inclusion through EcoFarmer, as every farmer interested in registering must first be registered on EcoCash (a mobile money payment tool). “We are in the process, as a business, of perfecting our monitoring and tracking mechanisms to allow us to better measure and report our impact throughout the sector,” states Mboweni.

Bumper ICT services, bumper harvests

Zimbabwe is a largely agrarian economy, with over 70% of the population predominantly dependent on agriculture and more than 60% of people living in rural areas. Econet is therefore in the process of developing a variety of additional services to help farmers trade and access savings via their mobile phones, as well as receive loans or other insurance products, leveraging their pre-existing bundle offers, such as EcoCash and EcoSure. “Econet has the widest network coverage in Zimbabwe and, with a customer base of over 10.2 million subscribers, we recognise that the mobile phone is a powerful tool for transforming livelihoods,” says Mboweni. “We have also recognised that the information gap is one of the key challenges which smallholder farmers face and our primary endeavour is to ensure that our farmers have farming advisory services through their mobile phones.”

To engage with farmers, Econet works closely with local organisations such as ZFU, and NGOs such as Mercy Corps, to mobilise communities – an approach that farmers have found more ‘personal’. Econet’s engagement with community-based agents has helped drive literacy and awareness as most of the agents are recognised and respected opinion leaders, and services are offered in vernacular languages. However, digital and financial literacy among farmers remains a challenge. “One of our key learnings is that digital literacy and financial literacy are critical for our farmers in order to drive understanding and adoption [of Econet services],” says Mboweni. EcoFarmer has over 700,000 registered farmers, with many subscribed to specific EcoFarmer offers of their choice, but this is just the beginning as Mboweni explains, “We have been in pilot and learning mode, and plans are now underway to drive to scale to ensure that our services have a greater social and economic impact on our farmers.”

Note: Under the auspices of CTA’s flagship project in Southern Africa, Making Southern African cereal and livestock farming climate resilient, the centre is supporting Econet Wireless and ZFU to scale up the EcoFarmer micro-insurance scheme to 3,000 smallholder farmers in three provinces of Zimbabwe (Mashonaland West, Masvingo and Midlands).