Mobile Apps and the African Farmer: Potential, Challenges, and Limitations

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The Mobile Opportunity

In 2005, only about one in five people globally had a mobile subscription. Now, just 10 years later, that figure has more than doubled to nearly half of all people in the world. The pace of growth is particularly impressive in Africa, where the unique subscriber level reached 39 percent of residents by the end of 2014.

The growth in connections has, in large part, been driven by falling costs. Both feature phones and smartphones are becoming more affordable, and projections suggest that consumer prices will only continue to fall in the coming years. At the same time regulatory changes, improvements in network coverage, and innovation on the part of mobile service providers are driving down the cost of actually using these mobile phones. One good example of this last phenomenon is in Kenya, where telecommunications giant Safaricom introduced per-second billing in 2000, making mobile subscriptions more affordable and accessible to a lower-income population.

The costs of mobile phones and their associated services are falling throughout much of the world, and at the same time, the potential usefulness of the mobile phone as a tool for knowledge continues to grow.

The Mobile Agriculture Landscape in Africa

Smallholder farmers in many rural environments, especially in Africa, are forced to operate with relatively little help. Farmers have poor access to inputs like fertilizers; inadequate access to infrastructure such as transportation networks, few opportunities to learn about best agricultural practices, and little information regarding crop prices.

On these last two points, mobile technology can provide invaluable assistance to farmers. Many existing mobile apps strive to teach farmers more about their land, which crops to plant and when, how to efficiently use inputs, and how to optimize their harvests. Applications like Ghana’s e-Soko provide a platform through which Non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s) can easily communicate with farmers and effectively share agricultural expertise with a large group of people. Advanced applications, like the United States (US)-based SoilWeb take advantage of the robust informational infrastructure that exists in the country, offering farmers precise soil data and advice for their exact location. These represent just a handful of the types of mobile agricultural applications that exist and are capable of boosting smallholder productivity, improving farmers’ ability to manage their resources, and equipping them with the information necessary to better deal with the effects of climate change.

Another relatively common form of mobile agricultural application provides up-to-date price information to farmers. Many smallholders know relatively little about how much their products are worth, giving more bargaining power to middlemen and leaving the farmers vulnerable to unfair deals. With price-focused applications, some of which help connect producers with buyers, farmers can become informed of market prices for their products and can more easily connect with buyers willing to pay those prices.

Mobile phones have been able to leapfrog traditional telecommunications technology, so much so that in the developing world, mobile connectivity is the most prevalent and accessible form of infrastructure. With 80 percent coverage in developing countries,mobile phone access is far ahead of access to other forms of infrastructure like water, electricity, and transportation. For rural farmers still struggling due to limited essential infrastructure access, mobile technology offers a powerful bridge.

Indeed, mobile technology can be a boon not just for producers of food, but for consumers as well. According to one study focused on Niger, the introduction of mobile phones and access to consumer-relevant information has been hugely beneficial to grains consumers in that country. The study demonstrated that price dispersion—or the variation of the price of any given item—for grain within the country was reduced by 10 to 16 percent after the introduction of mobile phone technology.

Understanding the End User

Africa boasts a number of successful agricultural apps, but many others have failed. Those apps that fail often succumb to the various challenges associated with: the high costs associated with app use, network failures, illiteracy among target users, and an inability for users to charge their phones. Many of the startups that build agricultural apps tend to “hack-up” solutions to a very broad problem, failing to do the necessary market research to build a useful and sustainable product.

Given that their incomes tend to be low, small-scale farmers can be unable or unwilling to pay for an agricultural application. And if they are not going to pay for the app itself, this typically suggests that they are also not going to pay for the costs associated with using it, such as using voice minutes, texts, or data. Many applications that fail to win over users do not take this reality into consideration. Farmers, even those that may be able to afford it, can be deterred by potential costs. And while it has been proven time and again by social entrepreneurs that people in low-income brackets are willing to pay small fees for a service that they believe will genuinely improve their circumstances, the challenge lies in convincing farmers that applications add enough value to be “worth it”, and then actually delivering on that promise.

Applications that do not take into account their target farmers’ levels of education are often doomed to fail. In some cases, the target users of an app have very low levels of literacy. A text-based strategy may be severely limited in its reach, despite its best intentions. In Ethiopia, for example, where literacy rates are low, smart purveyors of mobile agricultural solutions have embraced voice technology. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Institute of Agricultural Research, and its telecom provider have collaborated to create a free-of-charge hotline that farmers can dial to receive voice messages about best agricultural practices in their regional languages. A recent report indicated that the number of registered callers to the hotline had just surpassed the one million mark.

Still, the problem can be related to more than just literacy. In Kenya, for example, information provided on the National Information Service (NAFIS) hotline is in English and Kiswahili. But a study by various Kenyan universities and the Ministry of Agriculture suggested that providing information in local dialects and even local accents could strengthen the reach of these messages.

And in situations in which digital literacy may be low, app creators may need to work directly with farmers to show them how to use their applications. In Kenya, NAFIS did this by using agricultural extension service workers to communicate directly with producers. Startups do not have access to the labor that a government-initiated project would, and so working with farmers must take a different form. For M-Farm, a Kenyan mobile agricultural information service, that has meant cultivating an in-house team of content managers who work directly with farmers. These content managers act as an intermediary between farmers who are unsure how to use the application and potential buyers. They also teach farmers how to more effectively use the app so that they can act independently in the future.

Some of the other challenges associated with mobile apps are more difficult to overcome, given their interconnectedness with, and reliance upon, other actors. Weak network coverage is a problem that app-builders can’t resolve. But maybe if they work to ensure that telecom providers are well aware of the potential market that could exist if they expanded coverage, they could have an impact on how quickly services are rolled out. And for those farmers unable to charge their phones, it hardly makes sense for app builders to wait until rural areas obtain access to electricity. Rather, builders should creatively work around the problem. For example, the non-profit One Acre Fund provided farmers with solar-powered phone chargers on credit to address this issue.

Those building an agricultural application need to have a clear idea of their target users, what their habits are, and how those habits may change in the near future. This can help inform every stage of the app-building process, and help answer strategic questions such as whether the app should be free, text-based, or should require users to have an internet connection. While the use of smartphones continues to grow quickly, farmers’ ability to affordably access these features is not—a reality which developers must be aware of.

This is an obstacle which the founders of M-Farm know all too well. In an interview with Gro Intelligence, M-Farm cofounder Linda Kwamboka described how her company offers both short message service (SMS) and web-based content to farmers. And while the web-based content they offer is detailed and powerful, smartphone penetration is just too low in many parts of rural Kenya for a web-based solution on its own to be viable. GSMA reports that smartphone adoption in Sub-Saharan African was just 19.33 percent in the second quarter (Q2) of 2015, the lowest among all regions globally. And while a further breakdown of urban versus rural figures was unavailable, it’s reasonable to infer that those rates are even lower for rural subscribers. As a result, the developers of M-Farm designed the app so that farmers can engage with the company over SMS to obtain prices, buy farm inputs, and find buyers for their crops.

Unfortunately, even when an app is well built and takes into account the various nuances of its target market, challenges remain. In a recent US Agency for International Development (USAID) study conducted in Kenya, researchers found that very often, “development” apps— those that focus on an array of social services, including agriculture—perform poorly in marketing and distribution efforts. The USAID researchers also found that five years after its inception iCow, a widely lauded and robust Kenyan app that gives dairy farmers information on prices, inputs, and livestock health, was barely known to dairy cooperatives within a four hour radius of the capital, Nairobi, where iCow is based.

Lastly, understanding the social structures in which their target users exist can help strengthen the power of an application. For example, in many parts of rural Africa smallholder farming is social in nature – a trait that can be exploited by app developers to increase information sharing. M-farm, for example, is very much aware of this social structure, and facilitates weekly meetings in which farmers can share knowledge. Additionally, the company offers farmers with Android phones access to a social network set up by the firm through which farmers and agronomists can contribute ideas and interact.

The Solution, or Just a Solution?

Development organizations around the world have been touting mobile phones as a powerful tool capable of fixing many problems. Indeed, they can help in a vast array of areas—from improving responses to natural disasters, to providing essential health information, to improving governments’ abilities to govern and provide services. Within agriculture, mobile tools can help boost crop yields, link producers to buyers, teach farmers best practices, and help users prepare for the potential effects of climate change. But despite great potential benefits, mobile applications cannot solve every problem.

Some of the biggest, most debilitating challenges that smallholder African farmers have to grapple with are related to their extremely limited access to credit, markets, and quality agricultural inputs. For each of these challenges, mobile solutions can be only one small part of a broader set of solutions. Improving access to credit will require strong policies, better data, and buy-in from banks. In addition, access to markets cannot be “fixed” simply by providing price information, but rather roads and other forms of infrastructure need to be built and improved. Finally, both of these challenges relate to the issue of inadequate input access; farmers without credit cannot afford inputs. Without high-quality infrastructure, the final cost of inputs delivered to where they’re needed can be staggering.

Pitching mobile solutions as a be-all, end-all solution to the agricultural woes of a continent is misleading, and should not delay the implementation of other important solutions. The advent of apps should be considered as a complement to good agricultural and development policies, rather than a replacement for them.

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