farmer phone


Why Is Smallholder Communication So Important?

Smallholder farming in the tropics lags far behind commercial farming in terms of production methodologies, produce quality, and profitability.  The problem is that traditionally all agronomy has been delivered face-to-face. Naturally, it is more expensive to visit 1,000 farmers with 1 hectare than it is to visit one farmer with 1,000 hectares.  Therefore, smallholder support is downscaled, visits are less frequent, and often farmers are aggregated and receive generic rather than tailored advice. 

Consequently, large farms can adopt new and improved practices quickly, whereas it takes a long time for the same practices to filter down to smallholders. 

The rapid adoption of mobile phones sheds a ray of light on this problem.  It takes just as much time to message 1,000 smallholders as it does one estate, and it is cheap.  But there are many different options with advantages and challenges attached to each.  So which medium do you choose?

This is a fundamental question, and your choice as an organisation will drastically shape the future for you and the farmers you work with.  The medium you choose will be vital in determining the level of interaction you have with your farmers, which farmers can use your service, the team you need to hire to manage the service, and even how much it will cost to serve each farmer. 

These are fundamental business decisions that cannot be taken lightly.  Therefore, the answer to the best question is, of course, that it depends. 

Yes, I know that’s a highly annoying answer, but you wouldn’t be reading this article if it was simple. 

What are the Current Challenges

Here are a few facts from Kenya that illustrate why this is such a difficult decision:

●  There are 59 million unique mobile connections in Kenya, 108% of the population.  Of course, this means that many people own multiple phones.

●  73% of Kenyans use mobile money, indicating a technologically mature market and access to at least a basic phone handset.

●  40% of Kenyans have access to the internet, of which 96% do so through smartphones.


●  The average age of a Kenyan farmer is 60.

●  Kenyan literacy rate for the over 65s is 57%, and as low as 8% in some rural counties. 

When looking at somewhere like Kenya, it is very tempting to look at the first three facts and get excited about the potential of using the internet to better connect with farmers.  It’s true, technology uptake in East Africa is staggering. And the dominance of infrastructure-less solutions such as M-Pesa is a genuine reason for excitement when deploying technology in these markets.

But as always, this is only part of the picture.  You can’t ignore the second two statistics.   Internet adoption is predominantly driven by the younger generation and is far more widespread in urban areas.  Farmers tend to belong to an older demographic, where illiteracy is more prevalent than access to the internet.

This isn’t sexy or optimistic, but it is, unfortunately, a fact.

So whilst smartphones offer a fantastic feature set that allows a vast spectrum of information to be delivered remotely, is it always the best option?

Literacy is a critical factor in this conversation. However, focusing too closely on this single fact paints a misleading and unfair picture of what a smallholder farmer looks like.  So I prefer to explain it within a more relatable context:

My parents were both brought up in the UK, have high levels of education, and are both edging towards 60.  Both of them own iPhones with contracts that provide 2GB of data each month. 

And yet (infuriatingly), they both turn their data off as soon as they leave the house, in fear that they will go over their data limit and get charged over their contracted limit.  They have access to Google Maps but take a physical map everywhere they go.  They have WhatsApp, but I know I have to send an SMS; otherwise, it won’t get through.

Now, I’m certainly not accusing Kenyan smallholder farmers of being as tech un-savvy as these two.  My point is that this has nothing to do with education; it has nothing to do with employment or geography.  It’s a simple fact that people of that generation didn’t grow up with smartphones, and therefore don’t use them as religiously or as effectively as younger generations.  This effect is even more pronounced in Africa, as smartphones were adopted later.

So this is the test I run in my head when considering whether a piece of information is best delivered via an automated call, an SMS or via a WhatsApp message.  Would it make sense for my parents? – Sorry, Mum and Dad.

Again, not to sound like a broken record, but it all comes down to understanding your user.  Understanding what action you would like the farmer to take and what information is needed to enable them to take that action—then finding the simplest, most accessible solution to achieve this.

Do not, as we have seen many businesses do build an app just because it seems like a good thing to do.  It is almost certainly not.

The Solution Must be Right for Your User 

Most decisions can be supported through low-tech channels such as IVR (automated calls) and SMS if done correctly.  This is especially true when coupled with additional support channels, for example, field staff visits.

As discussed in a separate article, informing a farmer of the best day to apply fertiliser, or the optimal spacing for planting their seed, or where they can sell their produce, should not come with reams of extra information that the farmer didn’t ask for.  These tasks can almost certainly be achieved through a handful of messages or less.

Smartphone dependent channels such as WhatsApp become valuable when the information being delivered to farmers is complex or when the connection to the farmer is weaker. 

Why Low Tech Might be the Answer

Currently, there are other, more significant barriers to farmer adoption in both these instances because agriculture is still a face-to-face industry.  And there is a reluctance to move away from this comfort zone.  So if an action is complex, a farmer will likely want someone to show them how to do it first regardless. And if your connection to the farmer is weak, it will be harder to convince them to take action in general as farmers hate risk.

I’m sure this will change as farmers become more comfortable receiving information remotely and smartphones become more ubiquitous.  But there needs to be a transition to that point which won’t happen overnight.  This is why lower-tech solutions such as SMS and IVR are so crucial today. These are the technologies that will drive that transition. 

So just think, next time you’re building an engagement solution for smallholder farmers, it might be cheaper and easier to stick with a low-tech solution, to begin with, even if it isn’t quite as exciting!

This article was written by James Alden, CCO and Co-Founder of Climate Edge

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