How mobile phones are transforming African agriculture

Using the Esoko mobile phone, farmers in Ghana are capable of knowing exactly how much they are going to be paid for their agricultural produce.

Mobile phone technologies are presenting Africa’s smallholder farmers with an unprecedented opportunity to run their operations more productively and to grow their own income levels. Private companies, budding IT entrepreneurs, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as governments are all involved in a variety of mobile phone-based products, services and applications (small software programmes that users can access on their handsets) aimed at boosting small-scale agriculture.

One of the largest challenges traditionally experienced by Africa’s smallholder farmers has been a lack of transparent information about the market prices of crops. A number of new mobile phone-based services are, however, addressing this problem by giving farmers access to market prices, enabling them to negotiate better deals with traders and improve the timing of getting their crops to market. These services typically include a function where famers can send a SMS text message to a specific number which then gives them wholesale and retail prices of crops.

Mobile-based market information systems have been around for a while. According to a document published by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), some of the first services were launched as early as 2002. The success of these earlier services has, however, been haphazard, largely because of lower mobile penetration rates at that stage as well as a lack of a viable business plans behind many of the projects. “A lot of the projects are donor funded and they haven’t got a viable business model on the other end. Once the funding runs out the ability to sustain the project or . . . application disappears,” says Matthew de Gale, ICT services manager at the Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT), an organisation also involved in developing mobile applications for farmers.

The explosion of mobile phones on the African continent and much reduced data costs, has led to the development of improved products for farmers. One of the most successful technologies is arguably the Esoko service developed by Ghana-based BusyLab. Originally established in 2005 as TradeNet, the company was rebranded as Esoko in 2009, operating on a new platform with a broader set of tools. In addition to providing access to market prices, farmers and traders can also place buy/sell orders. Esoko has attracted investment from the International Finance Corporation, the Soros Economic Development Fund and well-known Silicon Valley engineer Jim Forster. Through a variety of partnership agreements, the company currently has a presence in nine countries on the continent.

“I think the potential to transform value chains and market access through mobile is enormous,” Forster said at the time of announcing his investment. “I believe this doesn’t need to be about aid in the sense we know it now. Here’s a local company building an innovative product to meet a local need and selling it in a profitable way. That’s how I want to see Africa develop its own markets and capacities, and that’s why I decided to support Esoko.”

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