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Mobile-driven agriculture

By Stephen Kafeero

Amid limitations, small holder farmers are finding a great ally in their mobile phones

He handles his Huawei Ideos Android-powered smart phone like a treasure. Indeed, the gadget has become the most powerful tool in his work.

Two years ago; Bbosa, a farmer in Kiyola Parish in Nakisunga sub-county, Mukono District, became a Community Knowledge Worker (CKW), a group of trusted community members identified and trained to disseminate and collect agriculture-related information via smart phones. His smart phone has not left him the same.

“Before I became a CKW, I had three local  cows that I was looking after in a rudimentary way but when I was selected  to join, I used the information that I got from our mobile phones to change the type of my animals. Today I almost have 4 pure Friesians breed of cattle having followed the artificial insemination knowledge on my phone. I used to get 2- 3 liters a day but now I get over 17 liters of milk,” he says.

He says that the information on the mobile phones is continuously updated; for example he gets daily weather updates and information about prices of produce in major markets like Owino. This helps them to get the required information in real time.

Bbosa’s life now revolves around his smart phone and ReadySet – a phone charging system- which provides an additional income stream to him, on top of enabling him to do his job of delivering information to farmers and conducting surveys. With the ReadySet, Bbosa has a side business whereby his neighbors and friends pay a small fee to recharge their phones or enable a multitude of other micro-business opportunities that need reliable electricity. Bbosa also does not have to worry about electricity or kerosene expenses because he can use a light bulb in his house.

Bbosa can also undertake research before taking decisions for his livestock farm. “I first undertake research on the semen that am going to use for my cows because all that is available on the phones such that I forecast the produce that am likely to get,” he says.

The CKWs are nominated by their communities based on criteria such as willingness to serve the community and past leadership experience. CKWs receive a loan for a ‘business-in-a-box’, which includes an Android-based Smartphone, a solar charging station, a weighing scale and marketing material.

Using an app on their smart phones, CKWs deliver vital agricultural information to their communities, helping farmers to increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods. Two basic types of knowledge are shared: information that helps to increase productivity (such as best farming practices, how to prevent and treat diseases and pests, and weather forecasts) as well as information that helps farmers connect with markets and effectively engage with agricultural value chains (including up-to date market prices, directories of suppliers and buyers).

According Sean Krepp, the Country Director of Grameen Foundation Uganda, which deployed the system, the twofold approach enables smallholders to increase the quantity of food that they produce, and to maximize returns for any surpluses that they sell. This he says empowers farmers to exponentially increase their incomes, and provides them with the entrepreneurial support they need to make the leap from sustenance farming (farming solely for consumption) to commercial farming (farming for profit).

This information provides a detailed understanding of the challenges rural communities face and equip extension service providers with the knowledge they need to better serve the poor. Ultimately, the data collection is also a source of income for Grameen Foundation, as government agricultural extension agencies, agricultural organizations, and NGOs pay for the survey data collected from farmers.

Farmers also use information on market prices to bargain for better prices from middlemen who buy their produce.  Bbosa says that he started growing maize on 1 acre but now he has over 12.

“Before I could get less than one tonne of maize from an acre but now I get between one and half to two tonnes per acre,” he says, adding that in the last season he got more than seven tons of maize from what he planted but he is tracking the market updates before he can sell because he wants to get a good profit. “I keep tracking the prices on the market until when they are high before I sell,” he adds.

Also, the information on the phone helps him to know the best way to store his produce so that he is never in a rush to sell.

CKWs are also trained by Grameen to provide a link to agricultural research institutions and extension services and administer surveys and to set up off-grid electrical charging micro-enterprises using solar energy.

With mobile phone penetration in the developing countries like Uganda now exceeding 70% and continuing to grow rapidly, mobile phones provide a channel for health, nutrition and agriculture information that enables a level of scale that is not possible with face to face services. Also this provides an excellent opportunity to use mobile technology and infrastructure to deliver critical information to farmers.

The majority of farmers in Uganda often don’t have access to agriculture-related information on the internet or in some cases, even newspapers or television.  For these farmers, finding out about new drought-resistant seed varieties or even getting a reliable weather forecast is not easy. One of the typical means of getting this type of information to farmers is through extension workers which has its limitations.

Relevant, quality and actionable information is very important to the farmers because it affects agricultural productivity. There is need of up to date information on efficient farming techniques or advice on how to combat pests and diseases.

Since its inception in 2010, the CKW Initiative has deployed as of October 2013 over 1,122 CKWs across 19,046 villages in 43 districts across Uganda, according to Krepp. It has reached more than 209,470 smallholder farmers with the critical information that is held in the Grameen Foundation’s agricultural databank, with at least 1,317,976 beneficiaries estimated to have been indirectly reached by CKW information services. Currently, over 1.8 million direct interactions with farmers have taken place, with the number increasing daily.

An independent evaluation of the CKW Initiative carried out by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which compared a group of smallholder farmers with access to CKW information services to a control group that did not yet have access to these services, concluded that farmers with access to CKW information services experienced a 34% increase in access to agricultural extension services, a 17% increase in agricultural knowledge and an increase in knowledge about market prices of up to 45%. Of farmers that used CKW services, 92% reported taking action based on the information they received from CKWs.

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