The rapid evolution of mobile technology is enabling remote farmers to access and share information: even with basic mobile phones. Better ‘connections’ improve farmers’ access to knowledge, markets, financial and healthcare services, and more productive and transparent supply chains.
Positive communication developments stimulate ‘business-like approaches’ to agriculture as farmers better assess risks, access inputs, set prices and control when products are sold. And - rather than acting individually - connected farmers profit from strategic decisions made collectively. Nevertheless, this information-rich world is not without its challenges as agribusinesses cope with climatic changes and fluctuating market prices.
So how do we analyse farmers’ connectivity? We can define farmers as being connected horizontally to each other, vertically to other actors, or holistically as part of a ‘system perspective’, which considers the context and complexity of farmer’s connections.
In past decades, connections were often linear and rather limited. Farmers may have received extension advice, but little in the way of market information. Establishing farmers’ associations and cooperatives allowed farmers to share experiences, act collaboratively and sell collectively, yet ‘connections’ tended to be passive and information exchange ‘slow’. But, if farmers remain at the bottom of the information chain, it is impossible for farmers to maximise productivity and run more efficient agribusinesses.
To help farmers connect to others, development actors have focused on access to information and improving linkages within the value chain to enhance market opportunities and prices. However, to improve decision-making about climatic and market risks and opportunities to grow/raise the right produce at the right time and for the right price, farmers need immediate access to a greater diversity of knowledge.
Making it mobile
Access to reliable weather forecasts is critical for farmers to make informed decisions about the timing of farming activities, from production to harvesting. But in the tropics, the most reliable forecasts are only 40% accurate. Tropical weather is localised and conventional climate models have failed to provide the accuracy that farmers require. However, ISKATM - a new weather forecasting service launched in West Africa and developed by Swedish company, Ignitia - provides GPS- specific 2-day, monthly and seasonal forecasts sent to customers via text. In the first full commercial season in 2014, over 80,000 Ghanaian farmers subscribed to the IKSA service, with 97% of farmers continuing into the next season.
Whilst mobile penetration in West Africa (except Nigeria and Mali) is around 100%, most people own basic handsets. Therefore, for simplicity, the ISKA SMS service uses seven key words that change depending on the forecast. “Messages are constructed so that literate as well as illiterate farmers are able to extract useful information after little training,” says Lizzie Merrill of Ignitia, the ISKA forecasting company. With each forecast customised to the farmer’s GPS location, ISKA has an 84% success rate compared to global forecasts. Farmers are charged around €0.035 per day for the service, paid via micro-instalments from prepaid mobile credit. “Spraying at the right time increased my yield by 40%,” says Stephen Andoh, a cocoa farmer in western Ghana. He adds, “ISKA weather forecasts have helped me and neighbouring farmers make the right decisions at the right time. We have had a lot more rain this season and the forecasts have helped us plan how to protect our crops.” With ISKA being rolled out to Mali, then Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal; it is predicted that around 1.2 million farmers will be accessing the service by the end of 2017.
SMS is increasingly used to transfer information to farmers through a wide range of mobile apps. But Farmerline, a company from Ghana that provides access to advisory services for smallholder farmers and other agricultural stakeholders, uses a different approach. Its service communicates relevant agricultural information (weather alerts, best farming practices, financial tips and market prices) through voice messages in local languages. In rural areas, where extension advice is often difficult to access, Farmerline provides locally- relevant content translated, recorded and sent by voicemail direct to farmers’ mobile phones.
“We have faced challenges with fluctuating prices but through subscribing to this service it’s now easier for farmers to know what is going on in local markets,” says Nana Kwaku Siaw who is practising aquaculture. “Farmers in Ghana are being encouraged to take up fish farming to provide an alternative source of protein for the population. I can now access the information I need on what to do and when to do it.” As well as voice messages, Farmerline has a dedicated support team that answer farmers’ questions. Regionally, the company also supports global food companies, governments and agribusinesses with farm management communication, data collection, and traceability to better manage and connect with over 200,000 farmers and supply chain actors across five countries in West Africa.
Farmer to farmer
ICTs are becoming more and more important in connecting farmers and providing information. However, traditional channels (audio, radio and video) used in new, innovative ways - including in combination with ICTs - retain a vital role in communication.
To inspire farmers, Access Agriculture uses local language ‘farmer-to-farmer’ training videos. On the organisation’s website, over 700 videos can be downloaded covering 60 languages. Ghanaian farmer Yakubu Rahman says, “The video was filmed in Mali, but it speaks to me in a language I understand.” For farmers in areas where electricity, internet and mobile signal is unreliable or unavailable, videos are accessible via a ‘smart projector’. “The kit comprises a projector and loudspeaker powered by a solar rechargeable battery. It fits into a backpack so anyone doing extension is able to carry it around,” enthuses Bob Muchina, chairman of the newly-formed Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services, Kenya. In Malawi, videos can be loaded directly onto farmers’ mobile phones at ‘video shacks’.
Across Africa, Farm Radio International (FRI) promotes a similar farmer-to-farmer learning approach by supporting local and community radio stations to develop programmes for group listening. One key participatory technology used by FRI is an interactive voice response system.This system allows farmers to access important messages and alerts, to re-listen again to radio programmes, and to share voice messages with radio stations, such as lessons they have learned in the field from implementing new methods.
Redefining the ‘middle’ link
ICTs help keep young people involved in agriculture. “I use the internet daily, especially social media networks, to gather information and communicate with the farming sector,” says 25 year-old Devica Sookoo, a young melon farmer and director of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago. “I hope to influence other young people to get involved in agriculture by sharing my knowledge and experiences - good and bad.” She adds, “With training from the Caribbean Farmers Network, I’ve also learned that social media is a great tool for helping to market my produce and directly attract customers.” (see also Field report: Online marketplace - a convenient connection).
Besides social media marketing, more sophisticated interactive digital platforms enable farmers to be better connected. The East African Farmers’ Federation e-granary platform links farmers to buyers. “Each farmer posts how much rice they want to sell and at what price. Once traders get the information, they give us (farmers) a call,” says William Juma, a rice farmer from Busia, western Kenya. “This platform also helps to stabilise cereal prices. After harvest, farmers come up with a fair price based on our production expenses that earns us some profit and is favourable to our buyers.” As e-granary is developed and scaled up across the region, farmers will also be able to connect to insurance and financial services. (see also Viewpoint: Establishing links: a visionary approach).
As new technologies evolve, the role of the ‘middleman’ - who buy from producers and sell to consumers - can adapt to new dynamics and offer services that enhance group marketing, price stability and negotiation. Tech4farmers is one such service provider which operates a digital commodity exchange and warehouse receipt system in Uganda for 6,300 farmers and 87 businesses. A warehouse receipt is used as collateral against grains and cereals placed by a named depositor into a secure storage environment. “Hedging trade through the tech4farmers online exchange reduces our business risks and increases investment returns since transactions are guaranteed by banks,” says Hajji Ahmed Naleba, rice farmer in Butaleja district. This financing mechanism promotes transparency in value chains, mitigates against side-selling and improves product traceability as farmers and agribusinesses can freely trade receipts on the digital exchange.
“Being connected means having timely access to critical information and the necessary support to fully undertake farming as a business,” concludes tech4farmers CEO, Deogratius Afimani. However, for all farmers to be better connected, challenges facing rural farmers still need to be overcome with continuing ICT innovation and appropriate policy support.