Despite making up a majority of the population in many countries, small farmers are often the most susceptible to hunger (HLPE, 2013). Even though they produce enough food, small farmers often go hungry as their farms are not as profitable as they could be, leaving them unable to purchase enough food between harvests. This is partly due to a lack of information and coordination along the food supply chain which increases costs of production and lowers revenue for farmers (Sygenta, 2011). Traditional print and library methods have been generally ineffective in providing necessary information to farmers, often because of a lack of access to resources (Obidike, 2011). Without up-to-date knowledge of market conditions, farmers are often exploited by intermediaries to sell their crops for far less than their value(IDRC). One solution is to create systems to provide farmers with information to enable them to maximize the amount they receive for their work. It has been estimated that market information systems can provide better income for producers by 5-10 percent (HLPE,2013).
Cell Phones as a Mechanism for Information Transfer
It is estimated that more than two thirds of adults in Africa own a cell phone (Pew, 2014), and 63 percent of rural households have at least one mobile phone (Gallup, 2013). While the poorest people, who are most likely to be starving, do have lower ownership rates, a majority of households still own a mobile phone. Gallup estimates that 55 percent of households in the lowest quintile have a mobile phone, and 62 percent of the 2nd quintile own a phone (Gallup, 2013). Even in the population that does not own a cell phone, many people likely have access to one by sharing with somebody else; Pew reports that 58 percent of Kenyans without a phone share them with others (Pew, 2014). Figure 1 shows the rise of cell phone ownership in various countries in Africa.
Figure 1. Cell Phone Ownership in Various African Countries (Pew, 2014)
Currently, there exist some applications that provide farmers with some information through SMS. Figure 2 outlines the geographic locations, information provided, and costs of some of these systems. It also shows the number of users as of 2010, which highlights the ability of cell phone information systems to reach large numbers of people.
Figure 2. Summarization of Existing Mobile Technologies (Sygenta, 2011)
These systems are very beneficial to farmers. In Uganda, farmers using Farmer’s Friend had the prices they received for their crops increased by 22 percent (FAO, 2014). In this application, farmers send SMS messages requesting information on agricultural tips or prices. The relevant information is communicated by Google through mobile operator MTN Uganda (ITU,2009). While the current applications have been successful, their ties to specific mobile companies would make it difficult for them to expand when considering the large number of providers that exist.
One solution is to integrate elements of many of the existing systems in an application that would cover Africa and Southeast Asia. Farmers would receive free daily SMS messages with regional weather forecasts, crop and input prices in the nearby markets, and agricultural tips. This system would involve partnerships between governments, mobile carriers, and a company to handle the massive amounts of data required.
In this system, governments would work with the data companies to provide data on market prices at specific locations, regional weather forecasts, and general agricultural tips. This content could be separated into two databases. The first would be a searchable agricultural tip database. The second would be a location specific database of market prices (input and crop) and weather forecasts. The mobile companies would work with the data company to send the relevant information to farmers. Farmers would receive daily updates with weather forecasts for their location and price information in local markets for their chosen crops and inputs. Farmers could access the tip database by sending an SMS with keywords and they would receive a text response related to their question. Governments would work with the data company and mobile carriers to subsidize this service so that there is no cost to the farmer.
While fully subsidizing this service for all farmers may initially seem unfeasible, it can be made possible through cooperation between the three entities who can all benefit from this system. Mobile carriers would receive government subsidies, and higher income for farmers increases the number of potential customers. Additionally, this service can serve as an introduction to the power of mobile technology which may tempt users to upgrade their plan, similar to a free trial. In addition to government subsidies, the data company would have more data to use for analytics that could potentially be very valuable. Furthermore, data companies frequently work on humanitarian aid projects, such as Google.org or IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, so the company may be willing to provide this service for a lower cost because it would fit under the category of humanitarian aid. It is not unreasonable to think that these massive companies will enter this market, as IBM’s 2008 Corporate Service Corps project in Tanzania involved designing “a free cell phone information system that allowed farmers to…increase yields and their profits more than 300%” (IBM). It is also important to notice that the government of Thailand subsidizes the 1677 Farmer Information Highway for Telenor subscribers (Sygenta, 2014), so it is not unrealistic for this service to be free to farmers.
This mobile information system, combined with farmers cooperatives, should empower smallholders to significantly increase their income and increase their food security by enabling them to afford enough food to feed themselves and their families.
FAO. (2014). The State of Food and Agriculture. Rome. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4040e.pdf
Gallup. (2014, May 1). Africa Continues Going Mobile. Retrieved November 17, 2015, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/168797/africa-continues-going-mobile.aspx
High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. (2013). Investing in Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security. Rome. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-6_Investing_in_smallholder_agriculture.pdf
IBM. (n.d.). Corporate Service Corps: Tanzania. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.ibm.com/ibm/responsibility/corporateservicecorps/wwa_tanzania.html
International Development Research Centre. (n.d.). Cellphones are Improving Agriculture in Kenya. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.idrc.ca/EN/Resources/Publications/Pages/ArticleDetails.aspx?PublicationID=147
ITU. (2009, September). New Mobile Applications Help Ugandan Communities. Retrieved November 22, 2015, from http://www.itu.int/net/itunews/issues/2009/07/38.aspx
Obidike, Nnenna A. (November 1, 2011), Rural Farmers’ Problems Accessing Agricultural
Information: A Case Study of Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, Nigeria, Retrieved 17 Nov. 2015 from <http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1734&context=libphilprac>
Pew Research Center. (2015, April 15). Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/
Sygenta Foundation. (2011). Mobile Applications in Agriculture. Basel. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.syngentafoundation.org/__temp/Report_on_mAgriculture_abridged_web_version.pdf