COVID-19 has shown the need for innovative thinking and for many, a quick pivot to digital ways of doing things. At the beginning of planting seasons, information, inputs and other farming resources are in high demand. Farmers need resources to plant for a good harvest and service providers and middlemen need to move goods and services in time.

Switching to digital means the ability to connect and serve more farmers in a safe way. Here are ways organisations that work with farmers can continue to move essential services during peak seasons while still adhering to safety measures during this pandemic.

Use mobile-based solutions 

In Ghana, there are 39.97 million mobile phone connections out of a population of 30.75 million people. But internet penetration is 48% with 14.76 million internet users. The high mobile penetration rate makes mobile more impactful in reaching and providing direct information to farmers living in rural communities during a pandemic.

Through digital communication platforms, organisations can send voice messages in farmers’ local languages and continue to support them with the right information this planting season. One of the things we are most proud of is using our technology to ensure farmers in our network are also receiving WHO health messages through mobile calls. Together with volunteers, we have been recording COVID-19 health advice in local Ghanaian languages. The messages explain what the virus is, how it spreads, the symptoms to look out for, and preventive measures.

Margaret Addai, a farmer in Bipoa, Ashanti Region, explains why receiving these mobile voice messages are crucial for farmers in rural communities,

“We (farmers) live in rural communities, not everyone here has access to a radio set that will help them keep abreast with news and trends. But even the poorest in these communities have access to a handset, so information sent through the mobile phone is the surest way to keep people informed in these times. Once we receive these calls we learn what is going on and are able to put the health information into practice.”

As we minimize physical contact and direct workshop training, we are creating other platforms for farmers to continue to access support. Our field officers are training farmers on best farming practices through phone calls, and farmers can also access support through our call centre.

Aside from these mobile channels, we have also rolled out an IVR-based system for plant disease surveillance in 16 farming communities in Ghana with support from Ausvet and Gates Foundation. Farmers across these communities will now be able to report symptoms from their crop and shortly after receive low-cost management advice through their simple mobile phones. We are hopeful about the impact this service will make in their work especially during these times where they have limited access to extension services and support.When we do meet with our farmers face-to-face in workshops, we are making sure the field agents have protective gear, and the workshops host less than 20 farmers, who all sit one metre apart, while everyone washes their hands regularly at the workshop and the farmers all wear facemasks.

Making sure farmers get their inputs 

For farmers to be able to do their work, they still need to access essential services, like inputs for their farms. Research has shown in Ghana, about 30% of inputs farmers use are below the standard or are unapproved which means farmers are at risk of using fake products on their farms, which is a health-risk and could affect yields. To address this, we work with certified manufacturers and have a robust distribution network. This is especially important now as through our network and using middlemen as the input dealers we can lower the farmers need to travel, and so lower their risk of COVID-19.

Anthony Aliebe is a Farmerline Zonal Director and is in charge of input sourcing from our supplier partners and distribution to our farmers. He says providing these safety measures ensures all our field staff are safe while delivering inputs and other essential services to the farmers. 

Anthony says this focus on essential services during the pandemic is to both sustain businesses and to ensure food security post-COVID-19.

“We conveniently deliver inputs at shops of input dealers. This minimises exposing the input dealers to the virus as they would not have to source or buy their input from the main market centre. Farmers can visit the agro-input shops we work with and can be safe in the knowledge they are getting good products, even in these shops we make sure the shop workers and the farmers have face masks to use,” he explains.

For us, this partnership with shops and dealers is important as it will help in creating more job opportunities in these rural areas. It will also ultimately increase farmers incomes if they have safe and reliable access to inputs. 

Emelia Adu, an input dealer in Atobiase, in the Ashanti Region says Farmerline’s work is keeping her safe.

“COVID-19 has made it difficult for me to travel outside my community to purchase agro-inputs for my shop. But through my partnership with Farmerline, I receive a constant supply of inputs right here at my shop in Atobiase. I am given a flexible repayment plan, and this makes things really easy for me. They have given me free nose masks for my own use and also to distribute to the farmers who buy from me.”

Track farmers’ needs digitally 

In order to efficiently deliver essential services to farmers, it is important to be able to track farmers’ needs digitally and capture sales records.

Most farmers and middlemen like input dealers are unable to keep records of their purchases, record sales and project input demands that will help them in planning and meeting input demand during peak seasons like this.

Through our  Mergdata software, we make sure that input shops and dealers we work with have access to a simple digital platform so they can record their sales and then track demand while having easy to access records. For farmers, we provide each with a digital ID card which has a record of all their financial activities with us and our partners.

“Farmerline has helped me to integrate technology into my work as a farm input dealer. Right here on my phone, I am able to keep track of my daily sales and use this information to track my profit and predict demand. They are bringing a lot of advancement in our business and farming”,

said Derrick Aquah Safo a partner input dealer in Adansi Asokwa.

We have seen major job losses across the globe in all industries, including agriculture, as Anthony says: “Some organisations have reduced their goals and targets for 2020 due to the pandemic. As a result, these organisations undeniably have shrunk their workforce to the new goal.” 

At Farmerline, we are finding new ways of serving farmers, working with partners and creating more jobs and opportunities amid the pandemic by exploring with technology and being open to learn and adapt.