Harnessing ICT for smallholder development


The story of overworked but poor rural smallholder farmers has been retold several times across Africa and Zimbabwe to be particular.

Smallholder farmers daily put in so much effort in their farming activities, but remain significantly poor. It has always disturbingly turned out other players in the value chain of products produced by these farmers get richer and richer.

Multiple studies have been carried out to examine this scenario, its causes and possible solutions. One of the prominent causes of poverty among smallholder producers has been the information gap.

Rural farmers, by the nature of their geographical location (remote and inaccessible), low literacy levels and dispersion are often left out in terms of information.

Without relevant information it is difficult to make profitable business decisions hence farmers do not know where to sell, prevailing prices or who is buying.

At the end of the day they sell to whoever comes to their door step offering low prices.

These middlemen take the produce away to sell at wealth-creating prices. If farmers had the information on prices and markets such daylight robberies could be avoided.

In light of the above there has been an effort to harness mobile phone technology to assist rural farmers.

At a workshop organised by the Market Linkages Association, a company called Esoko presented their Ghanaian case study.

The company developed mobile phone-linked software for farmers offering the following functions: price alerts, weather forecasts, matchmaking, inputs — sources and prices, bids and offers — market place, stock alerts and news alerts — eg armyworms affecting certain areas.

Esoko is currently working with 10 000 farmers across Ghana and observations are farmers’ livelihoods and incomes have greatly improved as a result of the system.

While farmers sometimes have access to a cellphone, this service greatly expands information availability and also connects farmers to trained professionals tasked with sharing knowledge and information with them.

The prospect of successfully developing and using mobile technology in Zimbabwe are high considering the increasing rate of mobile penetration in Zimbabwe.

About 66% of the Zimbabwean populace use cellphones which is now the second highest in Africa after South Africa.

According to the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, 72% of agricultural land in Zimbabwe is held by smallholder farmers.

It therefore makes sense to conclude harnessing positive social impacts have also been recorded for example where the wife would now know at what price the husband was going to sell the family produce, hence how much income to expect for the family.

Other African countries have also successfully started mobilising the use of mobile phones to aid rural development.

In Kenya such technology has been extended to include mobile banking. Equity Bank is bringing mobile banks to some of the most isolated parts of rural Kenya that have no access to commercial financial institutions.

The mobile banks offer banking goods and services to many small businesses and smallholder farmers, providing their customers with the same financial services as in regular branches, including deposits and savings, money transfers and remittance processing and loans.

In Uganda, the Grameen Foundation started the Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) Initiative which is building a self-sustaining, scalable network of rural information providers who use cellphones to help close critical information gaps facing poor, smallholder farmers.

The CKW strengthens the information link to poor farmers by disseminating and collecting relevant information in these underserved communities.

Working closely with and complementing existing government agriculture programmes, CKWs are trusted local intermediaries serving farmers who frequently lack basic access to up-to-date information on best farming practices, market conditions, pest and disease control, weather forecasts and a range of other issues.

The CKW model is designed to improve farmers’ lives by enabling them to get the information they need to improve yields and have broader access to lucrative markets.

Upon request from a farmer, a CKW will use his or her cellphone to access actionable information to meet farmer needs.

In addition, CKWs collect agricultural information from farmers, providing a vital link between farmers, government programmes, non-governmental organisations and other entities focused on improving agriculture in Uganda and beyond.

This technology would bring immense benefits to small-holder farmers. More of the output from this sector can be mainstreamed into mainline national trade.

Cases of rotting vegetables at the back of Dotito village and bananas in Risutu will be reduced.

Farmers will know the prevailing prices and hence negotiate from the vantage point of knowledge thereby increasing incomes.

Credit should be given to work being done by companies like Econet and Telecel.

Their systems can be harnessed for this cause. Such products like EcoCash can facilitate rural payments for smallholder products delivered to markets.

The mobile information system cuts market inefficiencies like turnaround time and number of people involved in the value chain.