by Jorge Rojas-Ruiz and Anna Diofasi, Humanitas Global
An estimated 500 million small-scale farmers worldwide help feed nearly a third of the global population, about 2 billion people. However, farmers are often struggling to improve their efficiency, productivity and sustainability in the face of changing local and global conditions. Mobile phones can support small-scale farmers overcome the many uncertainties and risks they face during and after production, and thus help boost their performance. They create access to much-needed services on several fronts, from providing market and price information to knowledge sharing, insuring crop production and monitoring children’s nutrition status.
Typically, small-scale farmers in developing countries face difficulties gathering information about the true value of their products and identifying a market for them. This leads to less bargaining power and inability to meet market demand. Mobile phones can help farmers overcome these difficulties by making crop market components accessible to all through providing new marketing and trading opportunities as well as improved crop price information sharing. Text messaging services are now being used to give farmers information about current crop prices. Such interventions reduce the asymmetry of information; therefore, leveling the playing field between producers and traders. One illustration of the latter text messaging service example is Esoko’s experience in Africa.
Esoko has developed software that enables information to be shared across different parties in the agricultural sector, making real-time market information available. Demand, crop prices and seed and fertilizer location information is sent to farmers via text messages. Agricultural apps are not limited to crop management, however. ICow, a Kenyan mobile phone service, sends SMS reminders to farmers about their cows’ expected date for calving as well as tips on milk production efficiency and best dairy practices. Farmers can also trade livestock and livestock-related products using their handsets. Such systems empower farmers, improve their efficiency and so help increase their income.
In addition to providing market information, mobile phones are now also improving smallholder farmers’ food security through delivering innovative financial products, such as crop insurance. Farmers in Kenya can purchase insurance from Kilimo Salama, a crop insurance developed by Syngenta Foundation. Small-scale producers can purchase the insurance as they buy agricultural inputs and receive a receipt and a copy of their policy via SMS immediately. Insurance payments are also all automated: the system relies on information transmitted by a network of weather stations. If they signal irregular rainfall, a payment is automatically sent to farmers’ phones via M-Pesa. This eliminates paperwork and reduces transaction costs, making insurance affordable for small-scale farmers. With their crops insured, farmers can more readily experiment with higher-risk, higher-yield crops and rest assured that regardless of the weather, they will be able to feed their families.
Food production is not the only aspect of food and nutrition security that can be aided through mobile phone technologies. In many rural areas it is difficult to frequently monitor a child’s nutrition status, so organizations like Tigo Foundation in Guatemala have developed a nutrition monitoring system using SMS technology. Health promoters in rural communities are able send real-time nutritional data of children via text message to health information centers. Then, the nutrition status of the children is diagnosed and information on how to care for the child is immediately sent back to health promoters. Such a system promotes efficient monitoring of nutrition, which facilitates healthier children who will be able to collaborate in the food production of their family’s farm in the long-run.
As producers look to meet global demand for food, mobile phones and other ICTs should be leveraged for both information sharing and productivity, as they will help small-scale farmers reach a level they have never reached before. With the use of smart phones predicted to grow exponentially in developing countries, the impact of mobile services and applications is also likely to be felt beyond food security and nutrition. Mobile health initiatives are being piloted worldwide to help with the diagnosis and treatment of chronic and non-communicable diseases. Cashless transactions using mobile money are already transforming the way business is done in many Sub-Saharan African countries. Mobile technology is quickly becoming one of the most important agents for change.