iShamba is one of a growing number of mobile phone services looking to provide farmers in the developing world with agricultural advice. The subscription phone service is the brainchild of Mediae, a for-profit social enterprise behind the hit TV drama Shamba Shape Up, which deals with issues relating to poverty and food insecurity in East Africa.
The boom in so-called “mAgri” information services comes on the back of an exponential growth in phone ownership (shipments of mobile handsets hit 257m in India alone last year), coupled with lower airtime costs and improved network coverage.
An early pioneer in the field is OneWorld South Asia, an affiliate of the nonprofit OneWorld International Foundation. Seven years ago, the New Delhi-based charity established a dial-in service called LifeLines that allows farmers to phone and leave a message about a problem. Experts at the charity then search a database for geographically relevant answers and record an answer, which the farmer can then access by phone.
- The local nature of mAgri presents issues around access, too. Phone ownership and network coverage may be expanding fast in the developing world, but black spots still exist, particularly in remote rural areas. Penetration of internet-enabled phones among low-income farmers, meanwhile, remains tiny for now. Low literacy rates and the predominance of regional languages mark additional obstacles to rural producers looking to access mAgri services.
- Overcoming these challenges is possible, but it isn’t cheap. Nor is there the prospect of a lucrative market at the end of it. iShamba, for instance, charges only 80 Kenyan Shillings ($0.87) a month to subscribers. Others offer the service for free, subsidizing it through advertising or grant money.
- Key to the success of such programs is the quality, timeliness and relevance of information provided.
In the case of iShamba, the project’s backers are able to draw on years of experience of producing radio and television content about good agricultural practices. Most out-bound mAgri information services, such as FarmerLine in Ghana, incorporate GPS coordinates so as to localize their content as much as possible.
- The commercial element behind many mAgri projects makes some in the development community nervous.
“In the past a number of mAgri programs have served to advance the agendas of agribusiness and created high input dependencies to the beneficiaries of the programs. Any advice to farmers should be ‘sustainability neutral’. That is to say that information and communications technologies are equally applicable the development of more sustainable, agro-ecological approaches as to the expansion of conventional, high external input dependent agriculture.” Alvaro Valverde, private sector advisor at UK charity Oxfam.
15 October, 2014, Accra – Leading Ghana-based technology provider Farmerline has announced plans to join the Business Call to Action. The company plans to empower 500,000 small-scale farmers by 2019 in west Africa to advance their livelihoods by accessing information that helps them to improve their harvests. The company also plans to provide a specialised mobile communication and data-collection platform to 5,000 development organisations and agri-businesses in the next five years.
- As innovators in this space, BCtA member companies are advancing the inclusive business agenda by creating novel business models, sharing lessons learned, and forging partnerships to improve scale and increase development impact.
- The initiative is the result of a partnership between the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), UK Department for International Development(DFID), US Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Global Compact to meet the anti-povertyMillennium Development Goals by 2015.
- Companies report on progress toward commitments on an annual basis.
According to Sahba Sobhani, acting programme manager of the Business Call to Action, “Greater access to agricultural information using the mobile phone is a vital instrument for farmers in key underserved markets in Africa, and opening up crucial access to real-time information helps farmers increase their productivity.”