Mobile Telephony Makes a Difference in Livelihoods

Posted by Esther Nasikye on Aug 24, 2008

Agriculture is what keeps economies in most developing countries alive. However, farmers in many countries face major challenges. In an age of global markets, they are forced to enhance production, improve the quality of their yield, and access markets within short timeframes.  Small-scale farmers especially have traditionally been deprived of weather and crop information, have been at the mercy of middlemen, and have lacked timely market price information to negotiate the best deal. This has chancged with the a connect people advent of widespread telephony that connects farmers wiith markets, weather, and other data. 

Governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international donors are taking advantage of this technology revolution to help farmers access market information. They are convinced that low-cost access to agricultural prices could yield enormous payoffs.

In Uganda, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), a local NGO, is helping over 400 rural farmers in the Apac District in Northern Uganda, access information on market prices through text messages (SMS).

“The use of SMS has attracted a lot of interest from farmers because information can easily be accessed. Mobile phones are affordable to many people even in rural areas,” explains WOUGNET executive director, Dorothy Okello.

Information Officers collect market price information through physical visits to markets. More information is obtained from the Busoga Rural Open Source Development Initiative (BROSDI) website. Information officers translate the information to Luo, the local language, before sending it to the farmers through bulk SMS. For more information, farmers can send SMS directly to the Information Officers.

Farmers don’t have to pay user fees and the organisation gives them free cell phones.  While this has increased usage, it also makes longer-term sustainability of the project questionable after the initial phase which is funded by donors. The project was initiated in 2005 with financial support from the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA). According to WOUGNET, the project has improved the farmers’ access to markets which has, in turn, increased sales and income. Two other organisations, FoodNet and BROSDI are running similar projects in different regions in Uganda. 

Kenya’s SMS Sokoni project provides agricultural information through SMS for a fee. The project is run by the Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange(KACE), a private firm, in partnership with African mobile service provider Safaricom Limited. Information kiosks are located near where agricultural commodity buyers and sellers meet to provide low-cost access to farmers. KACE workers collect information on prices from these kiosks and then send it to the farmers, buyers and exporters through SMS. Although the entry costs and per-unit costs for a KACE user are low, farmers need to feel that they get value for their fees to sign up and for the service to be sustainable in the longer term.

According to the KACE website, farmers have quadrupled their earnings because they have access to information about potential buyers and prices. We were unable to learn more about by how much earnings improved.  The partnership with a mobile service provider has given SMS Sokoni a wider reach and has helped reduce costs, which largely explains why it is popular. Charging user fees may ensure sustainability after the donor phase as opposed to WOUGNET’s entirely free venture.

Other projects in Africa offering SMS messaging service for farmers include Xam Marse in Senegal. Launched by Manobi in 2001, Xam Marsé provides market information about various products to Senegalese farmers, traders, hoteliers and others via internet and free daily SMS. According to the Manobi website, the information has enabled farmers to increase their sale prices negotiated from their fields or on the markets by over 50% per year.

TradeNet in Ghana is another example
. It was started in 2004 as one of several software projects undertaken by Ghanaian software company, BusyLab.  “On the TradeNet website are more than 800,000 prices from hundreds of markets, spanning a range of time periods and countries. The price offers are available to search and compare over time, and across markets and countries.”

But because only a small percentage of its users are active on the internet, TradeNet has an SMS service at its core. Users can sign up to receive weekly automatic SMS alerts on certain commodities in particular markets; upload offers to buy and sell products via mobile phone; request current prices for a commodity in a country and receive an SMS with the information.

As opposed to many countries in Africa, Cambodia has one of the most organized market information services for the farmers. Farmers get information either through the value chain or external agencies.  Through the value chain, price information is passed between market participants, e.g., from exporter to wholesaler to collector to producer by word of mouth. However, a study conducted by Michael Roberts in 2006 notes that such information may be biased since the transmitter of information is participating in the transaction. Farmers can only check the credibility of the information through physical visits to markets or with neighbours.

Different agencies, including the Agricultural Marketing Office under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries, Ministry of Commerce and Catholic Relief Services also provide agricultural information.  For these market systems, information officers collect the information about different agricultural products and send it to the farmers through bulletins, radio broadcasts, agencies, private persons, television and overseas embassies for exporters.

However, the Cambodia-Canada Agricultural Market Information Project (CAMIP) is arguably one of the most significant agricultural market information initiatives currently active in Cambodia, both in terms of resources and scope.

The project runs an SMS system that enables farmers to find out the prices of their commodities before going to the markets. Price information in the system can be accessed by sending an SMS message about a product to a specified number. The system will then reply with an SMS message indicating the price for that product in the market. It will also indicate price offers by traders and producers. CAMIP market the service via FM Radio, its website and publications.

What differentiates the CAMIP project from others mentioned here is that farmers are trained through Farmer Marketing Schools (FMS) to help improve their ability to use the information and better market their products. Training focuses on packaging, bargaining, post harvest quality and peer networking.

Opportunities created

Study upon study have revealed that access to good market information can increase revenues for everyone along the supply chain – producers, collectors, traders, transporters and exporters. According OneWorld Africa (2008) in Chipata, Zambia, mobile phones assisted three area associations sell their produce at better market prices.

There is growing evidence
that mobile phones allow better access to market opportunities and allow farmers to work more efficiently as a result.  “In the Indian village of Kerala, fishermen would generally return to their “home” markets with their catch. Oversupply meant that fish had to be routinely dumped into the sea. After mobile phones were introduced, the practice of “dumping” fish overboard stopped; fishermen’s profit rose by 8% and consumer prices fell on average by 4%,” according to a study by Robert Jensen in 2007

By offering farmers faster and cheaper communication, mobile phones often substitute for costly and risky journeys. (id21 Insights 69, 2007). These projects have demonstrated how mobile telephony has given farmers a chance to access information faster and thus reduce losses. Information about markets and prices gives farmers wider options for selling their produce and helps them make informed decisions.

An added benefit of SMS is that it can still work even in weak cell phone coverage areas where voice would not.  “One does not have to travel long distances to access the information as is the case with email and internet. The information here is instant,” Okello explains. A recent ICT Update also notes that the information sent through SMS can be updated rapidly, meaning that all those along the chain can plan and adapt to any changes in the process accordingly.


Despite the opportunities mobile telephony can create, illiteracy is one factor why many rural farmers may not benefit. “Many rural farmers in Africa are illiterate. SMS is best suited to the delivery of short, simple messages encoded in numbers, short text, or icons. This rules out the delivery of complex technical information that would traditionally be delivered through training, booklets and manuals,” Okello explains.

Research conducted by the International Development Enterprises (DIE) in Cambodia in 2006 found that since SMS service does not have an immediate return for farmers, there is unwillingness to pay for the information. The same problem encountered by KACE in Kenya, WOUGNET and BROSDI in Uganda. This makes longer-term sustainability of projects difficult as they rely solely on donor funding.  “Many farmers live below the poverty line and may not afford to pay for the information services thus missing out on the benefits,” explains another research team (Nordström et al) in 2006.
During the pilot phase, it is therefore imperative user fees are introduced and project implementers ensure that the farmers get value for money.

Learning from the experience of these projects, SMS still needs to be used with a combination of other dissemination methods until such a time when every farmer owns a mobile phone.
But for SMS market information projects to have a greater impact, they need to work hand in hand with government departments and mobile service providers. This will go a long way in building trust among the beneficiaries, to avoid reinventing the wheel, and have a wider reach.  Project implementers clearly need to sell their ideas to these companies and explain how they mutually benefit.

However, when it comes to reaching small-scale producers, the challenges of access and literacy remain substantial (ICT Update, Issue 44 2008). With experience gained by partners and pilot projects run by TradeNet in Ghana, it has become clear that strong distribution networks are needed to deliver relevant information to everyone along the supply chain, especially rural farmers. This means creating networks to upload the data and training village operators to provide support. This will go a long way in solving the illiteracy problem since information can be translated and interpreted by those who understand.

What will the future bring?  It may very well be that as phones become more like small computers able to access the web and deliver email without being out of reach and data costs continue to decline, even small scale farmers will eventually begin to be able to take advantage of more sophisticated data delivery. Projects could, for example, send detailed information via email to farmers as opposed to the short text that SMS allows.


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