Farmerline Wins International Award (WSYA)

Landing at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, Canada, We were so thrilled about the opportunity to represent Farmerline and Africa at the World Summit Youth Award. The World Summit Youth Award (WSYA) is a follow up activity of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) and its action plan towards the year 2015 to help bridge the digital divide and form a sustainable information society. The WSYA selects and promotes best practice in e-Content and serves as a platform for young people from all UN member states that use Internet and Mobiles to get Action on the MDGs. This year, 18 young winners and 12 runner ups from around the world were awarded at the at Palais des congress, Montreal, where the event occurred. The event took place within the framework of the 18th World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT), on October 21-24 2012.

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We were totally blown away after the first day of the conference. This is not only because of the beauty and elegance of conference venue and the hotel suite, but also by the amount of brilliant energy emitted by the delegates poised to make the world a better place. The delegates were ranging from the COO of Intel Corporation to the Co-founder of Fairplay (anti-corruption video portal). There was so much diversity and creative energy, which presented a great opportunity for networking. To be honest, we entered this conference not fully understanding how this conference could affect Farmerline and its entire operation but we were poised to maximize the business value from this conference.

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At the end of the event, we left the conference with a sense of enlightenment based on feedback from world class mentors and peer winners from around the world. It was a great time for us to better position ourselves in contributing to the making of the Africa where Agriculture NGOs are not a functioning force in the market and where Farmerline provides and scales paid services that allow farmers across Africa to have the information and access they need to employ an entrepreneurial method of farming.

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Farmer-Centered Design:Building with the farmers and for the farmers.

Farmerline is a service designed to add value to the lives of its users – and to do this, it has to understand them. This is why the Farmerline team is spending the next month in the Northern Region of Ghana, beginning in the district of Savelugu, doing research into the farming practices, technology use, and general lives of smallholder farmers. For the past week we have been doing field visits with the extension agents that work in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) office located in this village. This morning while I was on the way to the office, I got side-tracked.

Today a group of university students visited Pong Tamale to present a report they had compiled the previous year. The report was fat like a book, and very thorough. It did an intimate analysis of the community of Pong Tamale’s composition, problems, and potentials. They laid out their findings for community members and asked for feedback. The main points in the report will be highlighted and left with the university to give to NGOs looking to do projects in the area.

As I sat down in the audience, the presentation was just beginning. A young man got up and began to list basic information about Pong Tamale like its location, demographics, the location and staffing of the hospital and the number of schools.

In another setting this would have been natural, but they were presenting to the people of Pong Tamale. Why was this young man authoritatively informing members of this small community that it was majority Muslim, and that one of its major institutions was a vet college?

It was a small absurdity that these students had overlooked, but it reminded of a larger one I had observed the day before in the district office. It was mostly empty, as it apparently tends to be during planting season, when extension agents are most needed on the field by farmers. One agent arrived in a fury. He had just met with two auditors and a manager from a project that he and several agents had recently been assigned to participate in. There are three to four projects working out of this district office at any point in time, so this was not unusual. This project intended to connect farmers to banks, so they could get loans. The agents involved each spent a week or two going to communities, explaining the project, and helping farmers fill out application forms. Of the fifty-seven loan requests this extension agent had collected, none had been accepted. Yet, in his meeting with the auditors and project manager, they had requested he collect more loan applications.
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Why would this extension agent go out into the field and collect more loan applications, when he has fifty-seven unaddressed loan applications on his desk telling him that new ones won’t get approved? Why would project staff ask him to, after having met with him and heard this problem?

When an extension agent brings a project to farmers that does not work it harms their trust relationship with farmers, who feel they have been lied to. It also wastes both parties’ time, and a lot of money. I do not know why this project was pushing forward despite clear failures in practice, but I wonder if it has to do with the prioritization of paperwork over realities. If more farmers apply for loans, the project’s service is in high demand, and it can be recorded as a success – while in reality, more demand really means a larger stack of unapproved loan applications sitting on someone’s desk.

A project manager’s realities are likely to be donors and reports and stakeholders, just as a university student lives in a world of classrooms and assignments and grades. When the hurdles these individuals face are so different from those faced by a farmer, how do they keep the distant needs of the farmer central in their mind as they go about their daily activities?

This is one of the questions Farmerline faces as it pursues a “human centered design”. Getting this approach off paper and into reality is the project’s central goal and possibly its biggest challenge. It is why we are engaged in this field work. It is also why Farmerline is a demand-driven service. Using Farmerline will be a choice, and as such the service will have to constantly adjust to meet the needs of its customers. We believe that the mobile phones already owned by many Ghanaian farmers are a potential tool farmers can use to address their problems and access new opportunities. What do farmers want this tool to look like? How will Farmerline stay aware of their problems and desired opportunities? What is the best way for any ICT-based project to stay “human centered”?

These are questions we will likely never stop answering. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

This is a picture from the student’s presentation.

—-Alex Sproule.

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Smallholder farmers are the answer.

For many of Ghana’s farmers, it is a struggle to stay healthy and well-fed. One of the major problems is that farmers are lacking relevant agricultural information. It can be difficult to get seed prices or learn how to treat diseased crops. Most farmers further do not have a good grasp of the value chain so do not  and cannot follow global agricultural trends or have a say in shaping the supply systems they are a part of. Meanwhile, the world’s population is rising and food production levels are getting more and more attention. Smallholder farmers currently feed one-third of the world’s population and have a big role to play in this discussion.
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These are the problems Farmerline intends to address, and why it was so exciting to be able to join their team in Kumasi, Ghana last week. Farmerline has partnered with the Canadian NGO Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in order to do research into the livelihoods and technology usage of farmers and extension agents. I am here as an EWB volunteer to spend the next three months carrying out some of this research, beginning this week in the Northern Region in the district of Pong Tamale. The results will be used to refine Farmerline’s design to best suit its users and address the problems discussed above. Some of the big questions we will be asking are: What is the value-add of the services Farmerline can provide to farmers and to extension agents? How do we redesign the Farmerline system and user interfaces to be as useful and usable as possible for farmers and extension agents? What type of farmers should Farmerline start testing the service with?

We will keep you posted on our progress!

–          Alexandra Sproule

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Farmerline Represents Ghana at TEDxAccra II (D-DAY)

The sun rose and the birds chirped to signal that the morning of Thursday, April 5, 2012 had already begun. CEO of Farmerline and Apps4Africa winner Mr. Alloysuis Attah and I, Christopher Amanor, thus prepared for the big day ahead. We had spent the night polishing Alloysuis’ presentation and were very confident of overwhelming the global audience with the presentation. We went straight to the reception of La Villa Hotel as it had been chosen as the pick-up point for all the winners that day. We were to be taken to Ghana Broadcasting Corporation located also in Accra for an inter view with Unique FM, a well-known radio station

 Alloysuis up early and looking all fly for TedxAccra.
Alloysuis up early and looking all fly for TedxAccra.

There we got together with the other winners Uganda’s Sunya Duncan, Victor Ogo Ekwueme and his sister Ndidi from Nigeria, Senegal’s Assan Sec and Kenya’s Gerald Lwande. We were then joined by Jon Gosier (organizer of Apps4Africa), Marieme Jamme(CEO of Spot One Global Solutions) and Jeanne Clark  who took us all in  a US embassy vehicle to the premises of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation for Unique FM’s interview.

After a short drive, we got to GBC and went straight to Unique FM’s building and patiently waited for the programme just before ours to conclude. While waiting, the interview session was planned so as to ensure that the live broadcast of the interview could be done in the allocated time.

With the interview done in thirty minutes, we then left for the Kofi Annan Centre Of Excellence where the TedxAccra event was to be held. The TedxAccra event was organized by the team of Marieme Jamme (Director), Worlali Senyo (Technical Manager), Edward Amartey-Tagoe (Operations Manager), Amma Baffoe (Marketing Manager) and Julani Genth (Executive Assistant). They had organized the event with the aim of providing a platform for meeting people that are shaping the future of Africa.

Unique FM interviews the Apps4Africa winners together with Mr.Jonathan Gosier.
Unique FM interviews the Apps4Africa winners together with Mr.Jonathan Gosier.

TedxAccra started with registration and networking, where the Farmerline team were surprised to see Rebecca, Don and Romeo of Engineers Without Borders at the registration desk. We were very glad that they were there to offer their support and encouragement. Next to arrive was Pierre and Miriam of mFriday who were also there to  make sure that everything was going on smoothly for the Farmerline team.
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After a welcome message from the curator, TedxAccra (which was live streamed to the whole world) started with a discussion and group thinking session about global development. This session which was overseen by Professor Chris Gordon, a senior lecturer at the University Of Ghana and Marieme Jamme. It was an interactive session where everyone present made contributions and suggestions to a variety of issues affecting the African continent. Questions like ‘How can we work across borders and political boundaries to bring about positive change?’ and ‘what are African leaders doing to confront global challenges using technology?’ were asked and used to steer the direction of the discussion. After about an hour of discussions, there was a break for lunch so everyone could feel relaxed for the next session.

The next session consisted of a series of short and inspiring talks from renowned guests as well as the presentation of technology (designed by the Apps4Africa winners) for solving problems. Some of the speakers included Bright Simmons, Akua Nkrumah, Ato Ulzen-Appiah, Deborah Ahenkorah, Neville Roy Singham, Kinna Likimani and Jonathan Gosier. Between these talks, the Mayor of Accra came around to give a congratulatory speech to Alloysuis Attah for helping to put Ghana on the map with the Farmerline application.

With regards to technological solutions to problems in Africa, Kenya’s Gerald Lwande was first to present his online portal Mkulima Bora which helped farmers showcase their products to the world. Next was Assan Sec from Senegal with a presentation of EcoFund-Forum, a web-based application that helps communities share successful strategies for adapting to local impacts of climate change. Then Uganda’s Sanya Duncan presented Agro Universe which works on both mobile and web platforms to allow farmers with agricultural products or livestock to alert the app’s community so that they can buy and sell goods from each other.

Ghanaian born Alloysuis Attah was next to present Farmerline in a unique and passionate exhibition of Farmerline, an SMS and web application for information dissemination between farmers and extension officers in the country. Last but not the least was Nigeria’s Victor Ogo Ekwueme with Hospital Manager. A web-based app that helps hospitals and health organizations prepare for disasters by identifying patterns in patient visits following disasters.

Before the event came to an end, there was a live stream from Berlin, where Melinda Gates was giving a speech on contraceptives at Tedxchange. After this, there was some more networking and drinks as TedxAccra came to an end. It had been a long day, so after some more interviews by Alloysuis, pitches to investors and some hanging out with friends we went back to the hotel to get some well deserved rest.

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Farmerline Represents Ghana at TEDxAccra I

On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, a section of the Farmerline team consisting of Co-founder/CEO Mr. Alloysuis Attah and myself Christopher Amanor left the city of Kumasi to attend TEDxAccra. An event which was organized by the US Department Of State in honour of the Apps4Africa winners of which Farmerline was a part. This invitation was a big deal to Farmerline because it represented the opportunity to showcase Ghana in a different and positive light as opposed to some of the more negative aspects of the Ghanaian culture usually portrayed by the media. With this huge responsibility on the shoulders of the team, a lot of preparation was done to ensure that the flag of Ghana was flying proudly high at the end of the day. Flying with us to Accra were the Co-founder of mFriday, Mr. Pierre Brunache Jr. and the lead Developer of mFriday, Mr. Nii Quaye to offer all the support Farmerline needed.
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Alloysuis, Chris and Nii.
Alloysuis, Chris and Nii

The team arrived in Accra at 9:10 am and were welcomed by Mr. Edward Amartey-Tagoe the CEO of Nandimobile at the airport. He drove us to the temporary abode of all the Apps4Africa winners which was of course the beautiful La Villa Hotel located at Osu. Room 203 was the room allocated to the Ghanaian representatives and we quickly checked in, unpacked and set up for the big day ahead. Not too long afterwards, we were asked to meet Jeanne L. Clark and Marieme Jamme, the CEO of Spot One Global Solutions, who were to take us to the American Corner located in the Legon Centre for International Affairs and Deplomacy (LECIAD) on the University Of Ghana campus. We met them and together with the other winners Victor and his sister Ndidi from Nigeria, Sanya Duncan from Uganda, Assan Sec from Senegal were transported in a brand new US government vehicle to LECIAD.Upon arrival, we went to the American Corner where the rehearsal for the big event was to take place as well as interviews by the media. The rehearsal was graced by people from Mobile Web Ghana like the famous Florence Toffa and the team behind Ikwery (the call card digitizing app).

Setting up for the rehearsals at LECIAD.
Setting up for the rehearsals at LECIAD.

After an introduction from Jeanne and Marieme, Victor Ogo Ekwueme (the first prize winner for West Africa) presented his app Hospital Manager which is a web-based app that helps hospitals and health organizations prepare for disasters by identifying patterns in patient visits following these disasters so that staff can better prepare for these situations and save more lives. He mentioned that the app is still in the prototype stage and is being tested in Lagos presently.

Our own Alloysuis Attah was next to present as he started out with an emotional autobiography about his childhood days where he was brought up in the Volta Region in an agricultural community which spurred him on to build an app to better the lives of the people engaged in agriculture. Unknown to us all at the time, those were the days when the seeds of Farmerline were being planted (no pun intended). Today, Farmerline provides farmers with instant access to information from extension officers via SMS and voice platforms. Farmerline has user experience dear to its heart and has thus been to the Kwadaso Agricultural College to help farmers fully appreciate the app as opposed to just pushing it out to them for money. A truly passionate and inspiring story indeed.

Sanya Duncan was next as he represented  his team from Uganda to present Agro Universe which works on both mobile and web platforms to allow farmers with agricultural products or livestock to alert the app’s community so that they can buy and sell goods from each other. The objective of Agro Universe he said is to create a regional marketplace where products can be sold that may have no demand in the user’s immediate area but that might be in areas further out.

EcoFund-Forum concluded the rehearsals with Assan Sec from Senegal presenting a web-based application from Senegal that helps communities share successful strategies for adapting to local impacts of climate change.

A team from the Mobile Web Ghana Training program pulled down the curtains at the proceedings by briefly talking about ikwery, an SMS application that makes it easier to share digital business cards and eliminate the use of hard-copy business cards by introducing a more reliable, convenient and efficient solution.

Alloysuis in one of  many interviews for NET2 TV.
Alloysuis in one of many interviews for NET2 TV.

This gave way to a flurry of interviews of the winners by the NET 2, a television station and Radio Universe (an fm station) and a few others. Afterwards, we all went for a few drinks at Akuaffo Hall, a resident hall on the university campus to relax as we waited to be driven back to La Villa Boutique Hotel.

Back at the hotel, we were treated with a sumptuous dinner and turned in early for the big event the following day hoping for the very best.

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Farmerline Pitched at Barcamp Kumasi

Alloysuis Attah, the young co-founder of Farmerline Limited, began a pitch at Barcamp Kumasi 2012 (BarCamp Kumasi 2012 is a FREE networking event to bring people together for a day of discussion, demos and dialogue about Kumasi, Ghana and beyond.) by reminding everyone of the fruit juice which everyone had taken that morning and then tactfully related it to the picture of a woman talking on the phone on the Farmerline website: ‘the woman, who is a farmer, probably produced the drink in an obscure corner of the country’, he said. This woman symbolized farmers who represented a whopping sixty percent of the country’s population and have their productivity and livelihood intertwined in mostly very poor conditions of life.

He explained that a field visit by the Farmerline team to Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Kwadaso Agricultural College led to the realization that one extension officer is allocated at least 1000 farmers. This can explain the paradox of how come the most productive component of the economy of a country happen to have some of the poorest livelihoods in the country: Majority of farmers do not have access to information on good farming practices as well as market information to help them sell their products if they somehow manage to grow their crops.

Mr. Alloysuis Attah then demonstrated the sms platform of the application by asking for a volunteer’s mobile phone number and went on to send the volunteer a text message which was immediately received by the volunteer. He also talked about the voice mail platform of the application which consists of the answering of queries from farmers a toll free helpline (short code) in various dialects including Twi, Ga, Ewe and Nzema. The extension officers are able to answer the questions via a web interface and answers sent to farmers as voice sms. Farmers are also able to browse through questions and answers by other farmers using the system.
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He went on to say that farmers’ interest in Farmerline was mostly evident at review sessions and demonstrations (held by the Farmerline team to tutor farmers) when they were being sensitized on how to use the Farmerline application because ‘they felt they were a part of it’. This shows that you can never under-rate the importance of user experience.

The dream of the co-founders (Mr. Alloysuis Attah and Mr. Emmanuel O. Addai) is to enable all farmers to have more say and empower their future. This together with the aim of Farmerline to capture the whole value chain from production to consumption is a herculean task but the young entrepreneurs are not fazed by the enormous and daunting nature of their crusade and hence have chosen to begin their quest at the input stage or primary production stage of the agriculture value chain.

Joshua of Steflan Consult, in appreciation of the Farmerline application, suggested that the co-founders add a feature like ‘info shop’ to their system where farmers without mobile phones or very bad communication network access can still acquire information provided by Farmerline.

In conclusion to his presentation, Alloysuis as he is called at mfriday, said the Farmerline team is open to all human resource available as he does not underestimate the value of experience. The budding and youthful entrepreneur also talked about Farmerline’s invitation to TEDx Accra to present on Farmerline: technology of the Profession of the Future. The event takes place on the 5th of April in Accra, Ghana.

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Farmerline Visits Kwadaso Agricultural College

It was quite an experience speaking with lecturers and students of the Kwadaso Agricultural College (KAC), Kumasi. KAC is Ghana’s largest and Oldest Agricultural College established since 1922, with the responsibility of not only training officers for the cocoa sector, but also Extension Officers for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA). The college's general agriculture is split into five departments: Animal Science, Crop Science, Extension and Economics, Home Economics and Agricultural Mechanization.

The Department of Economics and Extension has a mission of helping students to develop business strategies to be self-employed and job creators in Agri-business and impact the skills, knowledge and attitudes of best practices in Agriculture to both peasant and commercial farmers.

About three (3) meetings were arranged for us (Alloysius and Emmanuel) by Rebecca Peel (member of the Farmerline team ,a lecturer at the College, and a fellow at Engineers Without Borders). The first meeting was set up for the Part-time class on a weekend, whereas the other two meetings for the regular students and the Lecturers occurring the following week. We seized the opportunity to pitch our ideas for the first time to professionals who matter in the agricultural sector on the need to embrace technology in their day-day activities, and also present to them our proposed solution to the already identified problems in the sector.

Extension officers in Ghana have the responsibility to push new techniques and policies to the grassroot farmers. The very existence of the country's population is dependent on how effective farmers and extension officers use information available to them to maximise food production. Already, farmers rely on the tutelage of these officers to implement new farming techniques. The telepathy between the ordinary farmer and an extension officer cannot be overlooked whenever any new approach is to be introduced.

The officers informed us that most of the IT systems currently available in the agricultural sector were not doing well due to lack of support from the stakeholders of the sector, most importantly and often overlooked, the extension officers. The top hierarchy often overlooked their input whenever such a system was to be deployed. They were therefore glad to be part of the building of a platform that respected their inputs and needs.

It was shocking to realise that many of the Extension Officer we spoke with in our second meeting catered for over 2000 farmers, a figure which is greater than our initial hypothetical ratio of 1:1800. This painted a picture of how bad the situation actually is.

There was however a serious obstacle we observed after interacting with the officers – many of them were afraid of losing their jobs if they helped to push ICT into their scheme of work. We then knew there and then that, if the minds of these major implementers were not psyched up, any application deployed with their help was bound to fail. Well, after explaining to them how complementary our platform could be to their efforts, they then brought another problem to the fore – lack of ICT skills. This problem was actually expected, though.

Most of the officers also bemoaned the low level of education among the small-holder farmers, and wondered how the SMS could be effectively used. They later understood why the voice component of the Farmerline platform was crucial.

All in all, it was refreshing to ascertain the real problems and misconceptions being faced and/or held by the Extension Officers. We were therefore inspired and emboldened by this experience to fashion out plans of incorporating packages that would solve these problems.
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In subsequent publications, we will give a statistical overview of the questionnaires the extension officers completed for us.

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