Agriculture / Ethiopia / ILRIComms / Knowledge and Information

ICTs, mobile phones and Ethiopian agriculture

Yesterday, Judy Payne (USAID e-Business Advisor) and Amol Jadhav (GSMA Development Fund) convened an informal meeting of people in Addis Ababa with an interest in information and communication technologies (ICTs) in agriculture.

The aim was to share ongoing United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and GSMA (the trade association for mobile industries) Development Fund experiences in this area, particularly using mobile phones in a ‘mFarmer Initiative.’ We were 20 or so people from a range of agencies working in the ICT for development and agriculture sector.

Judy Payne set the stage pointing out that internet and mobile coverage is spreading in Ethiopia, so that rural ICT applications are really becoming a reality. Furthermore, several ‘mobile money’ initiatives are coming; these are likely to revolutionize the rural sector.


The meat of the meeting was a presentation of the ‘mFarmer initiative’ by Amol Jadhav. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, it comprises four elements:

A ‘challenge fund’ (now closed) to support a few very promising projects; an ‘open source’ agricultural content database that will bring together and aggregate agricultural content for use by development agencies and so on; technical assistance and advice on mAgriculture to mobile network operations (MNOs); and a set of M&E tools.

The project aims to reach 2 million farmers, by June 2014, enabling them to obtain ‘critical agricultural information’ via mobile channels. The plan is to find innovative models that use a blend of existing mobile technologies to deliver agricultural value added services (AgriVAS) . The idea is that these models can be replicated and scaled out to many more people.

The key elements of this big idea: First, getting to scale; and second, combining agricultural content and expertise with the expertise and reach of mobile network operators. A very businesslike approach is proposed.

The initial value proposition starts from two assumptions: First, that agriculture needs to grow and be more productive [to feed 9 million people in 2050]. Second, that mobile operators in saturated urban markets see opportunities to grow in rural areas. Combining these two ‘drivers’ underpins the idea of the mFarmer initiative.

A key aspect of the project is to identify sustainable business models – the target farmers themselves are not yet seen as having the financial assets to pay for the proposed services. Options under consideration include: Finding organizations, such as purchasers of commodities, who would pay for ‘their’ outgrowers to receive targeted mobile agricultural value added services. Another is to tap into the demand for information and data on rural communities, offering third party organizations access to the mobile phone users or information on their profiles as market research or monitoring and evaluation sources.

Other learning from GSMA’s experiences so far looked at different dimensions of the delivery of agricultural value added services – market assessment and user needs (including an ‘Agriculture Lifecycle’ comprising planning, planting and growing, and harvesting matched to various information types), service design (push-pull, timeliness and relevance, channels), and marketing (that looked at the ‘customer journey’ from awareness to use). An interesting aspect of service design was a schematic showing some of the key elements of the approach: content sources, content types, aggregation tools, content management, and delivery to farmers (a rather linear process with feedback loops).

Download the Agricultural Value Added Services (AgriVAS): Market Entry Toolkit – this covers emerging best practice on marketing, service design and business modelling.

Beyond mobile

After the focus on mobiles, Judy Payne highlighted some other important ICT developments relevant to Ethiopia: video, radio, applications with GPS, precision applications …. all in all, more, and more affordable devices coming on the market.

She zoomed in on a couple of areas. According to Payne:  “Mobile money is really cool.” Why? services like M-PESA in Kenya help farmers save, get funds faster and cheaper to and from family members, reduce costly borrowing, facilitate urban to rural transfers, and offer easy way to move cash around. The challenge is how to scale these fast. It seems that at least three mobile money initiatives are being developed in Ethiopia.

Another big focus: Market price information systems. She picked out some issues, noting that the big challenge is to collect the right information. It is essential that prices are correct and double-checked. According to Payne, this is “not an easy service at all to pull off” … “the hard part is to get trusted information from the right places.”

Looking across the ICT4Agriculture scene, Payne suggested that most USAID agriculture projects use ICTs, but that “almost none of them are sustainable beyond the project lifecycle or scalable beyond the project beneficiaries.” There’s still a major challenge to get the business models right.

However, she picked out some promising projects: and  / which reminded me of other examples like  shujaaz fm, agfax radio service, participatory video in the Nile Basin, and Jimma community radio … among many others.

Reflecting on the mFarmer initiative

The mFarmer is a very exciting initiative (that ILRI hopes to engage in). The conversations stimulated some personal reflections on the approach presented:

  • The underlying notion is that ‘we’ (mobile operators and content providers) can directly reach many farmers (millions of them). Very little mention was made of other intermediaries, with great faith expressed in the power of the mobile device, farmer profiling, and the content database to directly provide targeted relevant and timely information.  It seems a missed opportunity to not, for example, explicitly reach out to groups like extension agents, enabling them to use the mobile devices and content to better serve farmers.  Similarly, not much mention was made of complementary media and channels like radio, video or mass media. For many of us, intermediary partners are crucial to reach beyond our boundaries.
  • Much was made of the need to ‘profile’ farmers .. in terms of their crops, interests, farming systems etc.  Which is all well and good, but may perhaps result in too much focus on the ‘present’ when the challenges and opportunities for many farmers are in the ‘future.’ Who wants to be getting profiled tomato information when they need to move to potatoes? How does the system know what farmers need to move to, or away from? And how feasible is it to profile the multiple purposes of, say, livestock, that are kept for various reasons. Information on the animal may be less essential than information on ways to benefit from it.
  • The model described seems to have few ‘non-farm’ elements and has a strong focus on increasing productivity (of crops) . How well would it would deal with other goals of farmers –  finding off-farm income, ensuring family health, new livelihood opportunities, coping with risk, reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience to disasters and shocks, etc.? Productivity is one of the objectives of many farm families.
  • The system will need to differentiate between ‘commercial’ cash- and market-oriented agriculture and smallholder subsistence farming. A lot of the incentives to use the services may work better for market-oriented farmers where investments in advice directly lead to financial or quality returns. Many of the poorest are perhaps far from markets, so are most difficult to reach.
  • The services described seem more suited for people ‘growing’ known things with known problems and known solutions that can easily be captured in a database or similar.  It is not so clear how it deals with risk and uncertainty … nor complexity. In many areas of Ethiopia, issues like degradation of natural resources,  watershed management or climate change require actions by farmers  – often over a longer term, often at a community level, often requiring quite complex ‘data’ and problem and landscape assessment. These types of challenges seem to require a different level of value adding services. A narrower focus on using mServices to increase the productivity of specific commodities might be more feasible than very general references to ‘farmers.’
  • The global agricultural content database, for all the promised ‘intelligent’ approach, sounds like a major challenge (that has been tried, and not succeeded, before). Perhaps it would be more promising to recognize the diverse content already existing and find standards (like W3) that would allow it to be more easily located, aggregated and put to use where needed (AIMS at FAO is a promising group to work with on this).

All in all a lively and stimulating discussion that we hope to continue in other informal interactions among the various individuals working with agricultural knowledge in Ethiopia.

More about mobiles …

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