Portable computers, tablets and smartphones have created new ways of accessing information. At the touch of a screen, we can check the bus schedule and decide whether to carry an umbrella. More and more, information and communication technology – often referred to as ICT – is also changing the way smallholder farmers do business.
Smallholder farmers often live in remote rural areas far from cities, markets and sometimes even roads. Most make sales to traders directly from the farm gate, for low prices, immediately after the harvest. Apps, SMS messages and radio programmes hold the promise to help farmers make informed business decisions about when, where and how to plant and sell their crops. Today, farmers are connecting with one another across vast distances with apps to improve their planting and harvesting skills. They receive weather and market price information through SMS messages directly on their phones. And they are able to use mobile phones to send and receive payments more quickly and securely.
Increasing access to knowledge
As the largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, the World Food Programme (WFP) buys around US$1.16 billion-worth of food each year. Under Purchase for Progress (P4P), WFP is increasingly sourcing this food from smallholder farmers, benefitting their livelihoods, and building stronger food systems. P4P brings together a wide range of partners to provide farmers with the skills and knowledge they need to compete in formal markets.
Smallholder farmers benefit greatly from training on agricultural techniques and post-harvest handling practices, access to finance and business skills. ICT provides the possibility for increased ease and breadth of spread of this knowledge. In Ghana, Purchase for Progress (P4P) has worked with Farm Radio International (FRI) a non-profit organization which uses radio to provide farmers with information about agricultural best practices. With radio, more farmers can access this information when they need it, right in their own homes.
According to Ben Fiafor, Regional Field Manager, West Africa, Farm Radio International: “Radio is the preferred source of agricultural information for the large majority of smallholder farmers. Not only is it affordable and accessible to those without formal education, it can also be utilized in local languages.”
Broadening reach of market and weather information
Planting, harvesting and selling crops most effectively all require a great deal of time-sensitive information. Changing weather patterns due to climate change make it essential for farmers to access accurate and up-to-date weather forecast information to decide the best time to plant their crops. To reach more profitable markets, farmers need to know who is buying, which crops, how much, and at what price. In Afghanistan’s Faryab province, getting accurate and reliable market information is challenging. In the past, farmers either relied upon middlemen, or needed to travel great distances in search of mobile service, at great cost and risk due to insecurity. Now, a community radio has been established by WFP partner ACTED, and is now providing information on nutrition, hygiene and market prices.
“Today, I can see what the real market price is and based on this, I can decide to sell my crop for a good price at the right time,” says P4P participant Ghulam Ghaws. “This is encouraging, and I think I will continue to work hard in my fields.”
With prices often undergoing fluctuations on a weekly or even daily basis, farmers need to access up-to-date price information. This helps them not only choose when and where to market crops, but also enables them to better bargain with buyers to ensure they receive fair prices.
Engaging in online sales
In Malawi, smallholder farmers usually make competitive bids to sell their crops using paper and pen. But now smallholder farmers have been trained to take part in competitive bidding processes online through the Agricultural Commodity Exchange for Africa (ACE) platform. To build capacity for farmers to engage with online bidding, farmers’ organization representatives attended training sessions to learn how to set realistic prices as well as to illustrate how the ACE platform works. Many participating farmers had never used computers previously, and so were supported by ACE rural trade facilitators to participate.
Although there is great promise for farmers to grow their business with ICT, accessing it can be challenging. Farmers may not be able to access phones, electricity or cell reception. But women also face more challenges accessing and using ICT – they are less likely to own cell phones, and less likely to possess basic literacy skills – meaning that they may not be able to write a text or read information provided to them.
Potential for the future
There is a great potential for ICT to revolutionize the way in which smallholder farmers engage with markets. The two-way communication offered by cell phones is particularly powerful – providing the opportunity for farmers to provide information to buyers and engage directly in negotiations from distant locations. Today, the ICT revolution is just starting. There are sure to be big changes in the years to come, as technology reaches more and more smallholder farmers.