Forbes names Farmerline CEO as one of Africa’s 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs

Across the African continent, a lot of achievers are making waves and contributing to economic growth through entrepreneurship.

But what is even more impressive and striking is that a lot of these achievers, who are running their own companies and on a path to success, are young and have significantly less experienced. They are taking their passion and expertise and trying to do what many established entrepreneurs have strived to achieve: turn their start-up into a brand.

One of such innovative achievers is Farmerline’s Co-Founder and CEO, Alloysius Attah.

Together with his co-founder, Emmanuel Owusu Addai, they have built a company that empowers small-scale farmers with innovative mobile technology and information services.

Here is Forbes’ feature on how Alloysius’ unique story and his journey is leading Farmerline to become a household brand.

Alloysius Attah, Founder, Farmerline

Alloysius Attah, 27, founded Farmerline, a Ghanaian software company and social enterprise, in 2013. With offices in Kumasi and Accra, Ghana, and a current full-time staff of 23, Farmerline builds technologies to connect rural customers to information, financial services, and supply chains, with an emphasis on smallholder farmers. Farmerline has developed multiple proprietary software that are used widely across different sectors. These include the Mergdata platform, a data analytics and insight solution, and PayTime, a credit scoring and lending app that uses alternative data sources for farmers with no credit history. The company also provides content messaging to deliver good agricultural practices, weather reports, and market information to farmers, reaching beyond barriers in language, literacy, and connectivity by offering information in local languages. Farmerline’s content messaging (voice and SMS), remote surveying and data collection services have been deployed across 5 countries by companies, NGOs, and governments. To date, Farmerline has reached over 200,000 users across West Africa. The recipient of numerous awards including the 2016 SEED Award and the Financial Times/IFC World Bank Group Transformational Business Award for Achievement in Information and Communication Technology, Farmerline plans to reach 1 million active users by 2020.

Ghana’s 2017 Budget: An expert’s perspective on the agriculture sector.

Schandorf Adu-Bright, Director of Farmer Services at Farmerline

The agriculture sector plays an important role in Ghana as it is the backbone of the economy and one of the major foreign exchange earners.

Thus, the sector contributes and remains the main driver of poverty reduction as it stands enabler for more income generation and ensures food security for a large part of the population. So after Ghana’s 2017 Budget had been read, Schandorf Adu-Bright had an interview with Luv FM and Focus FM, both in Kumasi, and writes this article looking at the focus areas of the budget in terms of farmers, rural employment and infrastructure development.

  1. Planting for food and jobs is undoubtedly a great campaign. We, as a nation, must endeavour to increase our production. However, it is incumbent to provide and accelerate reliable and profitable market access for our cherished and hardworking smallholder farmers. Farmers do not just produce for food; they essentially produce to earn income. Often, what we witness on the field is that smallholders lose about 1/3 of their production, primarily due to the lack of market access and storage facilities. In a typical village like Ejura or Yonso in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, almost all the farmers produce crops like cassava, maize and vegetables. A situation like this means that when there is a bumper harvest, there are no buyers. Prices then drastically reduce and farmers who wait hoping to get favourable prices lose everything at the end to pests, diseases and poor storage.

The new government must avoid this. The “One District, One Factory” initiative if done right and on time will help to reduce the effect of this challenge.

  1. Widening the net of free fertiliser distribution projects to 180,000tons is a giant step. This is expected to boost cocoa production for this year. But before we jump into celebration about this, let us ask: how much of the quantities of the fertiliser written on paper and distributed to the district actually go down to the field – the cocoa farm?

The free fertiliser project has huge challenges with distribution and smallholder farmers’ access. From Farmerline’s interactions on the field, the following are the issues:

  1. Poor timing of distribution. The ideal time for fertiliser application is May when the rains start to pour. Unfortunately, most farmers receive their free fertilisers in August.
  2. Inadequate quantities.
  3. Unmapped farms or non-members of the group are excluded.
  4. Lack of education on fertiliser application and spraying chemicals use.
  5. Government free quality fertiliser is not available on the market for sale to farmers who can afford.
  6. Lack of effective monitoring, verification and evaluation.

So the point, what mechanisms is the government adopting to ensure adequate accessibility of these inputs by the smallholders.

To solve these issues, the government will need innovation technologies like Farmerline’s Mergdata to facilitate verification.  Again, National Identification will also be helpful in the verification process of these deliveries.

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  1. The government must be applauded for boosting the funding in Agriculture. Agriculture has always been underfunded. Item 785 of the 2017 budget, the government revealed that GHC335.14 million was the planned expenditure for the agric sector in 2016. This was miserably slashed down to 50% amounting GHC181. 29 million. About 90% of this actual expenditure went into was spent on poverty-focused expenditures such as the Fertilizer Subsidy programme and the establishment of Agricultural Mechanisation Service Centres, among others to boost agricultural production. For 2017, a total of GH¢450.33 million is estimated for this sector. An amount of GH¢421.52 million of this allocation, representing 93.60 percent, will be spent on the Fertilizer Subsidy programme and the Agricultural Mechanisation Service Centres, among others.

Now the question is, how much goes into extension service delivery at the district levels and the running of the various MoFA directorates? These offices are mostly under resources and extension officers lack funds for fuel and transport to do their works.

One key thing here is, the 93% budget allocation for Fertilizer Subsidy Programme exclusively targets the cocoa sector. So what happens to other commodities like rice, maize, sorghum, cassava and etc. All of them to share the remaining 7%, this is woefully inadequate. Why is cocoa sector given that priority, cocoa has reliable and profitable market access?

So, I think, the government should also give deserving attention to the non-cocoa sectors in the agriculture space.

Lastly, it will also be great for the government to make a commitment to advancing rural finance and credit access by smallholder farmers.

As Farmerline’s Director of Farmer Services, Schandorf manages a team of eight and he is responsible for leading training workshops for farmers, conducting user research, collecting data, advocating Farmerline’s initiatives, and monitoring and evaluating their impact. On behalf of Farmerline, Schandorf has trained more than 5,000 small-scale farmers to adopt and benefit from Farmerline’s voice messaging technology.  Schandorf has rich experiences in rural financing.

 

Ghana’s Tourism; Still an unpolished diamond

On the Asiwa-Anyaso road in the Bosome Freho District of the Ashanti Region

Throughout my childhood and adult years, I have always carried special pride in my heart for Ghana, the country of my birth. And that special pride is fueled by wonderful memories of wandering on the streets with my school friends, playing with my siblings at home and going to church with my parents, taking visits to Accra Zoo and other interesting sites in Ghana, as well as receiving gifts from relatives at Christmas and having fun at family outdoor parties in the golden sunshine.

But my time at Farmerline, which involves working with farmers and other actors in the agriculture space, exposes me to different adventures.

Each time I hit the road for work, I’m taken on a journey of an amazing country filled with beautiful nature, amazing people, and inspiring art and culture. My interactions with small-holder farmers spread across the country allows me the opportunity to see what influence people in hidden parts of the motherland can have on your humanity.

So in all my trips and experiences, one question keeps popping up; why is such a beautiful country like Ghana still poor?

I have read about African countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa who have turned their raw natural habitats and wildlife resources into money generating ventures.

What is Ghana getting wrong? What needs to be done to get Ghana on the same pedestal to also chalk such successes?

And the word that comes to mind for me is ECOTOURISM!

In a decade (1983 – 1993), the percentage of visitors to Kenya rose by 45%, and 80% of the tourism market was drawn by wildlife which generates one-third of the country’s foreign earnings.

What is Ghana missing?

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  • At Betenase in the Sefwi Akontombra District of the Western Region

Ghana is endowed with many geographic features which can be harnessed for ecotourism. There are however a few ecotourism sites being patronised such as the Kakum Forest, Mole National Park, Wli Water Falls, Butterfly Sanctuary, etc. Nonetheless, in most of the villages and towns I have visited, I see numerous potential tourist attraction sites worth unearthing. The glorious vegetation with rare tree species, communities engulfed by magnificent mountainscapes and hills covered by clouds, streams flowing through the forests, extraordinary carved rocks and roads arrayed with bamboo trees and beautiful cocoa farms that will whip up a desire to become a farmer. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people”.

The rich cultural traditions of Ghanaians and undeniable hospitality shown to all people are worth noting and will spearhead Ghana’s ecotourism into another pedestal.

Ecotourism in Ghana’s remote areas will improve the livelihoods of indigenes; provide employment for many especially the youth whiles increasing the country’s foreign exchange.

Zimmerman once said “resources are not; they become”. Beautiful sceneries in Sefwi Wiawso (Western Region), Fiaso (Brong-Ahafo Region), Tsarley Kope (Volta Region), Jagluu (Upper West Region), Tebeso, Nyakumaso, Wioso all in the Ashanti Region and many others are still waiting for their time to shine!

Let us see with new eyes the many potentials lying within this naturally wealthy country!

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  • With Farmerline’s Farmer Services team in Adansi North

As illegal mining wins, agriculture suffers.

A story of how “galamsey” threatens the livelihoods of thousands of smallholder farmers whose land it destroys.

Every morning before the sun rises in Agyareago, a farming community in the Asante Akyem District in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, young miners trek in single file, carrying pick axes, head pans, hammers and shovels.

They walk towards the eastern bank of the Enunu and Oweri rivers where they make a living from cutting trees, digging into the ground, overturning rocks and pushing the rubble into the river, further clogging a stagnant water body with mud.

They cut and burn wood to fuel their makeshift camps. They use mercury and cyanide to separate gold from the rocks, and then flush the toxins into the soil and two rivers.

This has become a worrying trend.

A once promising agricultural area is on the brink of collapse.

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Until its current state, Agyareago was known predominantly for its cultivation of cocoa and plantain, as well as filled with well-tended farmsteads of maize, cocoyam and cassava.

Now the village that is about a mile away from Odumasi and two miles away from Konongo has turned to a ghostly scene of wasted fields, trees ripped up by their roots and left to rot, gaping holes in the soil, plantations cut and burned.

In a visibly disturbed appearance and tone, Nana Akwasi Nti, Chief Farmer of Agyareago, cries out that the boom in illegal mining is fiercely driving away young farmers.

“Community farm lands are gradually reducing with a shift of mind to galamsey,” he says. “Today, one can count very few palm, plantain and cocoa plantations. There is also a low record of vegetable cultivation here. The current site they are using for their galamsey activities has a very rich soil type that is good and was previously the main site for the cultivation of okro, beans, garden eggs, pepper and oil palm. But these crops had to be cleared for the operation of galamsey.”

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Another outcry of the people in the area is how illegal mining has created population imbalances between the old and young in the farming area. “Farming has been left at the mercy of the older population between 45 and 80 years with a few between the ages of 30 and 45,” Nana Akwasi Nti confesses. “Some of the aged farmers, because they are unable to do most of the farming activities, have their farms managed by caretakers who usually are not as productive as they would have been. This has led to low yield and poor income.”

Despite new laws that are supposed to ensure illegal mining is stopped, nothing of note has happened.

“We have done all we can; we have complained to authorities without much help,” Akwasi says.

In a desperate clamour and appeal, Akwasi urged all concerned parties to help curb the threat that ‘galamsey’ possess before the country’s farm lands are totally taken over.

“Government, chiefs and key agricultural stakeholders need to start taking serious measures to stop this,” he counseled.

“If not, illegal mining will destroy the country’s agricultural sector in the next few years.”

Article by Farmerline’s Farmer Services Team

*Galamsey- a local term in Ghana for illegal small scale mining activity or mechanism to extract gold and other mineral resources, usually involving digging small working (pits, tunnels and sluices) by hand.

Becoming A Dad: The Journey to First-Time Fatherhood and Paternity Leave

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Joy was in the air.

The hospital’s doorway was littered with excitement and happiness.

The meaning of life was right here with me, and nothing could produce this excitement I had in my heart.

It is the moment most men look forward to. And for my wife and I, it represented more: we welcomed our first child and an additional bundle of bliss.

I was grateful for the relief drawn on my wife’s face and happy at the prospect of having someone in our home to love and cater for.

But that joyous moment was preceded by a long nine months of waiting, and about 36 hours of discomfort before delivery. This made me uncomfortable since I had not experienced that before.

I had never seen my wife go through such unexplainable pain before. She could not sleep. She was restless and nervous. Her palms were cold. And for the first time, I saw my wife on the edge.

Eventually, she delivered at exactly 9:45am. It was a sigh of relief. I was intensely proud of her for no distinct reason. I could only shout Thanks Be To God!

Like any newbie to parenthood, I thought for a moment our troubles were almost over after we welcomed our son – even though I had heard from friends on what the man’s duties are after delivery, I cared less about that. All I cared about at that point was, “We can confidently smile again because our 36-hour ordeal was over.”

Well, that was obviously the thoughts of a newbie indeed.

The main activities began when I had to run errands with my mother-in-law to make sure everything my wife needed were provided for – meds, food, other child stuff. A car was available so as usual, I thought the whole process will be easy. I mean I can just drive around town and make the purchases; after all, it is Takoradi where you can virtually drive around the city in 10 minutes if you really know the easy routes to use.

As you can imagine, that was not the case – it was far from easy.

After combing the town to buy foodstuff, running to the hospital 3-4 times in about 4 hours, and bringing my wife home that same day she delivered (after doctors indicated she was fit to be discharged), I had no energy and bones left in me. I was simply a bunch of tissues stuck together.

My mother-in-law was tired and wearied. My wife was worn-out. Everybody was so exhausted that night, but we had to still put it all together. We needed to welcome the new member with happy, smiley faces and with confidence and energy as if nothing had happened prior to that moment.

Day two (well, day one after delivery) came and a visibly jaded me had to wake up and begin another set of errands. At this point, I was already coming to terms with what friends had told me earlier, “The child becomes the new boss of the house after birth… all others needs come second …etc.”.

I made that realisation in less than 24 hours.

With the help of our friend (Kate) who happened to be in town on the day of delivery, I went to town to get other baby stuff from mini-marts and pharmacy shops in and around Market Circle (Takoradi’s major market centre). But it was a Sunday, which meant we couldn’t just go to a specific place and get all we needed. We had to check around many shops to get almost all what we had on our list. While at that, my mother-in-law also pitched in to prep the baby for his first bath at home as well as get breakfast prepared for Abigail so she could adequately breastfeed our baby. My mother-in law, who was tired from the previous day’s activity, had taken ill but still dedicated herself to our new home duties. Her grandson needed her.

Having returned from a long buying spree, breakfast was set, mother had eaten and child had been breastfed. Grandma was resting. But with the slightest noise that came with our entry, the child woke up, and all attention was drawn to him again. Experiences went on and on.

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  • Emmanuel Addai (Co-Founder and CTO, Farmerline)

Days three, four, and the rest were no different from the previous days.

My wife and I, joined by our families, marked the first month of our child with a very simple christening ceremony in Accra. The 45-minutes ceremony took place in church and was well attended by friends and colleagues from work and church as well. Finally, the little boy got a name; Samuel. I then took the opportunity after the naming ceremony to return to Kumasi and take care of business whiles my wife was still in her family home.

That week in Kumasi was not easy for me, at all. The absence of little Sammy’s cry and little worries really made me unstable. I had to call almost every hour or two to be certain that they were alright. Of course, you should know that was the exuberance of a new father. But most importantly, I felt very odd devoting my attention to work (which was good anyway) when I could have been having a nice time with little Sammy.

I have taken the time to scribble these down just so you can understand how it feels to be a first-timer dad, and how businesses, especially startups can support their human assets to give off their best in such situations.

Farmerline’s Board of Directors have been having conversations on annual leave, with paternity and maternity leave dominating discussions. We have been wondering if it is fair to only allow staff, who work so hard and are very dedicated to the mission of the company, to enjoy the 5-days paternity leave as prescribed in the latest amendments to the constitution. Prior to these proposals, there had never been any provision in the law on paid or unpaid paternity leave. Well, we figured it is only wise that the company advanced male staff a hand in their time of need. In view of that, the board has taken the opportunity to study my experiences, as well as those of Amos – our Director of Customer Service and the first father in our fold, so as to come to some practicable decisions on the implementation of an enhanced paternity leave for our male staff.

These learning on paternity leave has become even more important because there has been a divided opinion on the role fathers play in the lives of children in Ghana, and probably elsewhere. For those of us in Ghana, fathers have almost always been blamed for almost all problems that befall kids, especially in their early stages. At least, in our lifetime, we have seen children celebrate their mothers in a special way and shower gifts on them during mother’s day, but at best only buy a piece of bathroom towel or a set of handkerchiefs for their fathers during father’s day celebrations. That alone should tell us something might have gone wrong in our upbringing.

I was sad when I read a comment someone made on Joy News (as reported by GhanaWeb) to the news that a five-day paternity leave was being proposed – “It will be good news for all fathers, but I think it is not necessary. What do fathers do?” Is it not ironic that we require the highest standards for dads and yet do not want to provide them with adequate avenues to execute what we expect of them?

No one should point to the US when it comes to issue of paternity leave, because the US even looks to Finland for best practices. Paternity leave is offered for a maximum of 9 weeks in Finland.

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  • Emmanuel has played a pivotal role in Farmerline achieving the global, high-level status it has now.

We, as a growing company, believe that with the appropriate structures in place for annual, maternity and paternity leave, staff members would be adequately rested and well-motivated to face challenges ahead. Appropriate paternity leave will not only offer the father the chance to bond with his kid(s), but also strengthen the entire family bond as well as redefine the relevance of fathers in their homes. They may never look back with sadness and regret for working so hard for the company, for themselves and on behalf of their families.

I believe this is just a kick starter of an all-important conversation; one which many young business owners would not want to grant much attention to, since the general unproven belief and irony is that, the more staff work the more company gains. And so any attempt at giving ‘too many free’ resting periods is frowned upon. But it is equally essential and highly important that a father takes fair responsibility in the upbringing of the child and organizations need to support this in all the possible ways.

(We promise to share our outcomes and resolutions in due course so that young businesses would learn from them.)

Part II: Transforming Agriculture to Improve Ghana’s Economy

The role of agriculture in accelerating the economic progress and development of any country cannot be overstated.

However, in Ghana, the agricultural sector has suffered some neglect down the years.

Not a lot has been done to transform the sector from its present state to one which produces more yield and high income for farmers and the country as a whole.

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In Part IIof our three-part series ahead of Farmers Day on Friday (November 4), Emmanuel Tokunbo Darko (CEO, Babaoo Foods Limited) and David Asare Asiamah (Founder and CEO, AgroMindset) look at ways to transform Ghana’s current economy into a high agricultural production one.

Infrastructure development

For David, infrastructure development in the agricultural sector is a key element needed to change the economic fortunes of Ghana. “An enabling environment for agricultural transformation requires good roads and railway. Together with transport, communication network, power connections and water supply are also important.” he acknowledges. “But those are not the only things required: health, education and other socio-economic facilities must also be provided in these farming communities.” On the issue of storage facilities, David admits that it is crucial, particularly in villages, to lessen post-harvest losses. “Key stakeholders must facilitate planning and construction of storage facilities in rural areas to farmers don’t see their produce rot,” he adds.1170708_10151859505428383_2100884329_n

  • Emmanuel Tokunbo Darko (CEO, Babaoo Foods Limited)

Improvement of Research and Extension Services

The role of extension officers in the transformation of the agricultural sector cannot be overlooked, according to Emmanuel. “The role of the extension officer is very important,” he admits. “Officers should educate farmers on storage, processing, irrigation, land management, farm mechanization and erosion control, among others. When this is done, it will enable farmers increase their farm production at reasonable costs and be able to market their farm produce to a wider community.”

Emmanuel also acknowledges that investing in research and extension facilities should be a top priority. “We need to provide adequate funding to enable research and extension services function well in providing required services.”

Investment and Finance

Another critical tool for the growth of the agriculture sector, for David, is access to finance. “The shift from subsistence to commercial agricultural production requires funds. Therefore governments and all major agriculture stakeholders need to improve access to credits for farmers investing in agricultural activities by establishing agricultural banks and strengthening micro-finance institutions,” David says.

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  • David Asare Asiamah (Founder and CEO, AgroMindset)

Input Supply and Environmental Protection

Emmanuel asserts that stakeholders need to make available farm machinery and implements such draught ploughs, power tillers and tractors to enhance improvement in cultivation, especially in rural areas. “There should be timely supply of appropriate farm inputs to farmers to ensure that they improve productivity and increase their income. But this is dependent on key stakeholders reviewing prices for these implements and machinery so that it is affordable to farmers at all levels.”

Access to Markets and fair prices

Emmanuel contends that farmers need to be able to get their produce to markets and receive equitable price treatment for any sort of transformation to happen. “Many farmers only have the produce but don’t have the means to market their produce themselves,” he says. “They have to rely on middlemen who show up and give them both the price and the buyer. They have no information and no alternative market. We have to close that information gap between the farmers and the market.”

In the final part of Farmerline’s three-part series, we look at how the youth can transform agriculture through ICT.

 

 

Part I: Why Ghana’s agricultural growth has slowed down

In part I of a three-part series, we look at the many challenges that confront Ghana’s agriculture sector.

Ghana is faced with a harsh reality: a decline in agricultural productivity continues to threaten the economic development of the country.

Inadequate finances, climate change, poor pricing and marketing incentives, inadequate agricultural extension agents, pest and diseases and a lack of access to fertilizers are all contributing to the declining fortunes of the sector.

David Asare Asiamah (Founder and CEO, AgroMindset) and Emmanuel Tokunbo Darko (CEO, Babaoo Foods Limited) explain some of the challenges that have stalled the growth of agricultural productivity in Ghana.

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  • David Asare Asiamah (Founder and CEO, AgroMindset)

Poor Financial Support

For Emmanuel, the lack of financial support systems to enable farmers grow, expand and maintain their yield is problematic. “Although there are several micro-finance groups operating in the country today, not many smallholder farmers have access to these groups and not many farmers even know how these groups operate and how such groups can help them in the long run.”

Lack of access to fertilizers

“Farming on the same piece of land for years leads to land degradation, which makes these lands lose most of their soil nutrients and become unproductive or barren”, he says. “Farmers therefore depend on fertilizers to enable them grow crops and improve their yields. But these fertilizers are expensive so some form of assistance, like giving farming aids, will go a long way to helping our smallholder farmers.”

Poor Transportation and Storage Facilities

“Most of the farm produce just go to waste in our remote areas because farmers find it difficult transporting their farm produce to the market to sell.” David insists. “The roads don’t exist and most remote areas find themselves cut off from the rest of the country. And because there are no proper storage facilities in these areas, a lot of the produce just rot away.”

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  • Emmanuel Tokunbo Darko (CEO, Babaoo Foods Limited)

Lack of Information

David makes the case that a lack of information is one of the major problems facing most smallholder farmers in Ghana. “Most farmers in remote areas have no access to information at all (some don’t even have radio sets),” he says. “Even those in sub-urban areas have limited access to information and lack what it takes to process the information they receive. In cases where there is some access to information like crop rotation, the use of fertilizer, etc. farmers are unable to understand due to illiteracy.”

Poor Markets

“One of the major impediments is smallholder farmers’ lack of access to markets to sell their farm produce,” Emmanuel says. “Most local markets are thin, and trading in distant urban markets is not lucrative enough (owing to high transportation and transaction costs).”

 

All of these have conspired to stifle the growth of the country’s backbone and reduced the appetite of the youth for Agriculture.

For David and Emmanuel, these challenges are self-inflicted and can be resolved.

In Part II, we look at measures that can be taken to return the agricultural sector to its pride of place in the economy.

 

Helping smallholder farmers grow more food

How information and communication technology can increase the yield of farmers in Ghana.

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In years gone by, Ghana was one of the world’s most capable agricultural producers. Regionally-focused policies ensured that the agricultural sector functioned as the nation’s chief source of food, employment and income. The country was not only agriculturally self-supporting and food-secure, but it also blossomed in global markets as one of the world’s largest producers of cocoa and as a significant producer of palm oil, cassava and yam.

But that is not the case now.

Across the major food producing areas in Ghana, food production has either declined or remained stagnant. A situation which can be pointed to poorly distributed rainfall in farming areas; low prices of farm produce; poor selection of appropriate crop varieties; pest and disease troubles; substandard extension connections; poor supply of farm inputs, especially seed and fertilizers; and failure of the smallholder farmer to adapt to changing environments and adopting new technologies.

Schandof Adu Bright, Director of Farmer Services at Farmerline, admits that for improved yield to happen, smallholder farmer need to have an increased access to knowledge. “Without knowledge about local staple crops, changing climatic conditions and crop diseases and pests, efforts at increasing food production will be meaningless,” he says.

“To help farmers make the most of their harvests, they need access to a range of information that can help them decide when best to buy inputs or sell their yields. They also need information on the weather that can help them capitalize on rainfall, picking the best-yielding seed varieties and differentiating between disease and pests to respond appropriately,” Schandorf adds.

For Patrick Sakyi, Monitoring and Evaluation Associate at Farmerline, increased yield can be achieved when farmers start adhering to recommended farming practices. “Farmers are hesitant about adopting new farming practices or crops. This is largely based on a devotion to tradition, sometimes dating back several generations,” Patrick says.

“These farmers need to be shown proof that new practices will result in a better yield. But the adoption of these farming practices require the use of quality inputs such as seeds and fertilizer which most farmers may not be able to afford outright, hence access to loans or simple input facilities are needed.”

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Schandorf also argues that providing the price of farm produce will help increase yield. “With prices often undergoing fluctuations on a weekly or even daily basis, farmers need to access up-to-date price information. This helps them not only choose when and where to market crops, but also enables them to better bargain with buyers to ensure they receive fair prices,” he says.

“When they have received fair prices for their yield, they will be encouraged to grow more crops.”

With majority of farming dependent on rains, Patrick makes the case that sending voice call messages and SMS about weather information (in a farmer’s own local language) is also important.

“Changing temperatures and erratic rainfall have reduced yield in Ghana. Farms are especially vulnerable to climate variations and weather extremes, and thus suffer unduly.” he says. “Providing farmers with weather information, like Farmerline is doing, will enable them make informed decisions, better manage risk and take advantage of favorable climate conditions,” he adds.

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Increasing yield amongst smallholder farmers in Ghana is important and necessary. When the aforementioned conditions are put in place, Ghana will have an opportunity to return to self-sufficiency in food and become a chief exporter of agricultural products to the world.

Bridging the gap to new technologies for smallholder farmers in Ghana

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In many developed countries, information has played a major role in agricultural development. But same cannot be said for many developing nations, like Ghana.

For a country where agriculture is the most important economic sector (employing more than half the population on a formal and informal basis and accounting for almost half of GDP and export earnings), Ghanaian smallholder farmers rarely feel the effect of agricultural innovations either because they have no access to important information or because information is poorly circulated. And usually when the farmer lacks access to information and knowledge that would help them achieve maximum agricultural yield, they are not only left to battle poverty but are driven to urban towns in search of formal employment.

“Many farmers in rural areas do not have the most up-to-date information on how to grow food efficiently and economically. Because of this, farmers either plant late or in the middle of the season; something which affects not only the quantity but also the quality of their produce.” Schandorf Adu Bright, Director of Farmer Services at Farmerline, says. “Improving their knowledge of new techniques and technologies, in addition to providing them with resources necessary for implementation, can dramatically increase their level of productivity,” he adds.

Which begs the question: Which agriculture information services can be made available to smallholder farmers in a form that is relevant to their decision making?

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Director of Growth, Research and Development at Farmerline, Worlali Senyo explains how Farmerline is helping rectify the situation by providing improved information access and better communication service to smallholder farmers (fishermen and agric workers also) using mobile phones with messages in their local languages.

“Through the Farmerline platform, we send messages such as weather forecast alert, market prices, new farming techniques, agrochemical applications, and inputs, and finance to farmers (and fishermen) at a subsidised fee,” Worlali says. “We also provide the option to collect data from farmers (and fishermen), which also enables them to call into the system for advice.”

This deep understanding of the challenges farmers face and the commitment to providing user-friendly services is what has allowed Farmerline to develop solutions to empower agricultural communities.

Taking it further, Farmerline organises 6-8 workshops every week in farming areas spread across the country to help farmers receive extensive training on the best agricultural practices. These workshops involve how to receive local market prices, crop management know-how customized to a farmer’s local agro-climatic area, timely and relevant weather forecasts, transparent discovery of prices for their produce, and much more. Such real-time information and customized knowledge provided by Farmerline equips farmers to take decisions on cropping patterns and adopting agronomy practices that improve productivity and quality.

These initiatives by Farmerline, which are just the beginning of numerous innovations farmers need to produce and sell more food, provide a glimpse into what can be accomplished through innovation, education and information in the agricultural sector. When farmers gain access to the information and tools that help them better cultivate the land, they can start to shake off the chains of poverty.

Mobile Phones: Helping field extension officers transform Ghana’s agricultural sector

2.1

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?

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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.

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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:

  1. Preferred call schedules for farmers
  2. Acceptable call duration of content for farmers

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.

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