In the foothills of Nsuhia, a farming village in the Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana, Benjamin Oppong is unhappy about the yield of his crops.
Using traditional farming practices and mostly relying on manual family labour, his farm receives only two extension visits (often at the start of the year and towards the end) due to the lack of fuel allowances and poor road networks in his village. The absence of this timely agricultural information makes it difficult for Benjamin to provide adequately for his 7-member household; a situation that leaves Benjamin troubled because he loses profitable competitive advantage.
Like other smallholder farmers, the consequences of this poor extension services delivery has brought Benjamin certain poor agronomic practices like post-harvest management challenges, inefficient use of inputs, abuse of pesticides and inadequate access to information.
To make any form of profitable gain from his farm, Benjamin needs this information from extension officers to produce a good product and to profit from it. He painfully explains that the information he has to receive is crucial to planning and financing. For example, to plan an agricultural season, he needs to know which inputs are needed and what they cost. On the other end, he needs to know the price that his harvest will fetch.
So begs the question; how can a service be developed that allows Benjamin to access agronomic tips? With the world going through extreme changes as mobile phones enter almost all fields of human activities, will mobile phones be his preferred way of getting information?
Through user research, Farmerline discovered that a mobile phone service will provide a smallholder farmer like Benjamin with a platform for fast, easy and flexible agricultural information. A finding that birthed an innovative mobile voice messaging platform from Farmerline that disseminates weather forecasts, market prices, agronomic tips and financial tips to more than 5,000 farmers in Ghana.
Available in 9 local languages, this service essentially digitises the work of extension agents.
“One of the largest challenges traditionally experienced by Ghana’s smallholder farmers has been a lack of transparent information especially with the challenges that extension farmers go through.” Schandorf Adu Bright, Director of Farmer Services at Farmerline says. “Which is why Farmerline’s mobile phone-based service is a great tool to use seeing as it addresses this problem by giving them access to market prices, enabling them to negotiate better deals with traders and improve the timing of getting their crops to market. We’re basically helping farmers in their decision-making and ensuring that appropriate knowledge is implemented to obtain the best results.”
For Patrick Sakyi, Monitoring and Evaluation Associate at Farmerline, this mobile phone-based service from Farmerline is needed because the information provided is always relevant to a farmer’s specific situation. “This service is helping smallholder farmers transform the agricultural sector to accelerate growth,” Patrick says. “The service is structured in a way that it will quicken the pace towards full domestic food security, increased agricultural exports, improvement in farm incomes, production of raw materials for value addition through processing, generation of employment and alleviation of poverty,” he adds.
In another respect, Farmerline hosts in-person 6-8 workshops in farming communities each week (with major assistance from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture government extension officers) to answer questions about its technology, market conditions and distribution channels; and offer financial training.
“We believe this will help in the transformation of extensive services into diverse and demand-driven value chain information. This explains why we have localized and customized the service to suit the local user,” Patrick says.
In May 2013, Farmerline also undertook 3-month piloting exercise with fish farmers on its content services. The pilot helped Farmerline to discover:
III. Mobile network challenges in rural areas, etc.
“At the end, the pilot helped Farmerline to build additional features for its mobile messaging such as call retry feature; which allows a user to be called back several times should they miss their due whatever reason. The call scheduler feature also allows account administers to send calls ahead of time,” Schandorf says.
With officers very scarce these days, there must be efforts to provide interaction, feedback and support through mobile phone and internet technologies. And Farmerline is leading the trail in this regard.