Friday, 24 May 2013

SMARTPHONES AND RURAL FARMING IN NIGERIA - A Brief Overview

Entering the age of smartphones and mobile applications, a strong demand for collaborative and communal productivity tools has been noticed in many areas of the global economy and the agricultural sector (particularly rural farming ) is the latest to join the trend.

This report is a summary of the key findings by Youth Agro-Entrepreneur (YAE) investigators while reveiwing the usage of smartphones in rural farming in Nigeria. The Youth Agro Entrepreneur is a social enterprise incubator that seeks to rebrand farming as a sustainable and profitable profession for the youth.

The use of mobile phone technologies in boosting the activities of the rural farmer, has gained widespread recognition and acceptance due to the numerous practical advantages it proffers. A few of the popularly reported use of mobile phones are:
  • Coordinating access to agricultural inputs, 
  • Obtaining vital market information 
  • Monitoring financial transactions 
  • Consultation with experts for advice 
  • Seeking agriculture emergency assistance 
While these might seem like a list of the obvious to an informed few, a vast majority of people quizzed on the importance of mobile phone technology to the average rural farmer in Nigeria by our team, were convinced of its irrelevance. On further investigations the raw data disproved this. There was a clear gap between the perceived needs of a 21st century rural farmer and their actual needs. A survey of over 15,000 rural farmers in the Federal Capital Territory, highlighted the demand for mobile phones which can perform functions peculiar to the farm, with 58% of those questioned willing to pay for these devices if they were available.

Mobile phones have been found to help improve the productivity of individuals and organizations within resource-constrained environments due to increased efficiency, effectiveness, and reach (Burrell, 2008; Hudson, 2006; Saunders et al., 1994) A study of farmers in two districts of Kenya carried out in 2007 recorded the use of the mobile phone for the identification and management of livestock diseases, and for co-coordinating greater attendance and participation in organization meetings (FARM-Africa, 2007) while in Uganda, dairy farmers have employed broadcast information obtained via short message services (SMS) to help co-ordinate the supply of dairy produce in tune with market trends and confirmation from potential buyers, thereby increasing their efficiency. (Karamagi &Nalumansi et al 2009). This is indicative of successful uptake of the technology by the target market.

The rapid uptake and popularity of mobile applications by rural farmers have led to development of unique and innovative approaches to using these applications in solving some salient issues faced by farmers. Literature review reveals some innovative examples:
  • Storing agricultural information in the mobile phone (e.g., storing market prices in the mobile phone calendar);
  • Using the speakerphone function of the mobile phone for group conferencing
  • Receiving market prices through SMS
(adapted from Burrell, 2008; FARA, 2009; Mittal, Gandhi, & Tripathi,2009)

Since the 13th of May, the YAE investigators have been following and monitoring the Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES) that is organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Federal Capital Territory Administration, Abuja. The scheme is meant to help small scale farmers gain access to agricultural inputs (mainly fertilizers, improved seedlings & agrochemicals) at government subsidized rates. Eligibility of farmers for this scheme, required prior registrations to a government database where phone numbers and photo identification were of prime importance. All the information needed for succesful purchase of agro-inputs at subsidized rates i.e. unique identification numbers, redemption centres and quantities available were broadcast to the phones of registered farmers. The amount of the subsidy payments to the agro-dealers was controlled via an "e-wallet" which incorporated an SMS validation message for recording every transaction.
The success of the scheme, therefore relies heavily on the usage of mobile phone technology, which is being run by the telecommunication giants Cellulant. This presented the YAE investigators the opportunity to probe the rural farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture/FCTA field workers on the impact of mobile phones on the farmers activities. A survey with questions based around:
  • How many farmers used mobile phones 
  • How many owned a phone that can be classified as a smartphone 
  • How soon did they feel the smartphone trends would finally catch on with the agricultural sector. 
  • What the drawbacks and future was for rural farmers using mobile technology. 
  • Where they personally willing to invest on owning a smartphone
The survey was carried out around 23 centres in 6 area councils of Abuja. The results obtained were eye-opening. Not only were the high percent of these farmers interested in running an efficient and productive farming venture using the advantages afforded them by a mobile phone, they were also already clear cut problems they wanted their devices to proffer smarter solutions to.

The need for a complete farm management software to help with inventory of inputs, equipments and products was high priority to the young small scale farmers who had educational qualifications while the older demographics with higher rate of illiteracy, all emphasized on the need for a communal and social hub, where they can keep abreast with market trends ( i.e. food prices and customer demands) and share information between fellow farmers. This would have provided them with an immediate solution for the drawbacks faced during the GES exercise. Farmers confidence in the scheme was very low due to past experiences -particularly last years scheme. Many of the farmers had travelled long distances to redeem their subsidized inputs at the centres and complained bitterly of the cost of transportation and what's more some could not get any of the inputs due to "network failures" or issues of conflicting identities (names especially). Other issues raised were the tedious process of sending and receiving multiple text messages (6 sms per farmer) before they could claim two bags of fertilizers. Some farmers pointed out that, the ability for them to have a portal of communicating and sharing their problems, would have helped in reducing their transport costs. a They wanted a scenario where a whole village/community would be able to organize into groups to rent lorries and trucks to transport their fertilizers in bulk to their farms, thereby sharing (and reducing ) the cost of transportation using their phones to network with oyher farmers exclusively. Others argued for a need for a smarter approach which did not require the SMS format.

The surge in need for more productive and efficient farming models is a global trend. The issues raised by the Abuja rural farmers are being discussed all over the world by rural farmers, software developers and technology companies. Heavy investments are being made by software developers to address these important niche market. Over the past five years, a plethora of mobile applications catering to the rural farmer's needs have been developed. A bulk of mobile applications designed presently to proffer solutions to agricultural activities revolve around the day to day running and management of a typical farm set-up i.e. inventory of tools and equipments, tracking of bill payments, monitoring of daily tasks and recording of primary data from farm activities.

Recently, the sophistications of these applications have increased to include process automation of actual farm activities e.g. remotely controlled mill, tractor etc LoadOut Technologies LLC's YellowBox is a typical example of such system. It connects to hazardous farm machinery and allows farmers to work the controls from a remote location using a Wi-Fi signal. While these developments, are major steps in redefining the actual process and view of traditional farming methods, the ability to communicate and get involved with a network to aid marketing of farm produce and keep abreast with trends are more important. Agricultural applications to aid the rural farmer must possess capability to create an e- marketing networks, be able to distribute some sort of information, which could include weather reports, future market quotes, and market analysis. On the other hand, it should also be able to bridge the gap between e-marketing input supply firms and farm produce consumers e.g. hotels, restaurants, food processing companies etc. The ability to stay connected with market trends i.e. price of goods, supply and demand, all makes it possible for a farmer to monitor their stock and decide on market prices efficiently. This is undoubtedly a vital tool in boosting productivity and market potential of farm produce. An example of such applications, is Trello.com -a cloud based farm management service.

The global explosion of the social media phenomenon has led to a variety of innovative and unique marketing strategies been employed by sales companies and PR companies. With nearly a hundred million people on twitter and approximately half a billion people on Facebook, the potential for marketing and networking on a global scale has fully taken a new dimension. As it is being exploited by the entertainment, literature, education and financial sectors, agriculture should be no different. Battling against rural isolation, farmers have begun to make use of the opportunities that social media offers. An interesting case study is that of the #AgChat . Initiated by a British Farmer Michele Payn-Knoper, it is a moderated discussion and forum on Twitter, where professionals, enthusiast and investors in farming and food topics share ideas and discuss topical issues affecting their work and has managed to gain over 10,000 contributors spread across 10 countries and projected to grow by a 1000 % per year (Farming Futures,Madeline Lewis 2011)

These need for widening the scope of farmers through the use of a specialized social networking platform, is what has inspired a young Nigerian software developer who pleaded for anonymity to initiate a project that aims to develop a social network based android application for connecting farmers within the Nigerian agricultural sector with customers, clients, agro-input companies and local buyers of farm produce. These would serve the ambivalent function of helping farmers network and create a community to exchange skills, knowledge and agronomic information, while also bridging the gap between farmers and consumers. We at the Youth Agro-entrepreneurs, received this news with such glee, that we immediately contacted the software developer and promised to aid the project with as much data and academic resource that would be needed to make this laudable project possible.

I have been asked why the sudden need to arm our farmers with Qwerty keypads rather than pesticide sprayers and cutting tools, and the answer is easy; Agriculture has been identified as one of the key tools for fighting poverty and unemployment in developing economies (Rockefeller Foundation, 2012 Farming Now Innovation Awards) particularly by engaging the youths. In Nigeria, It is indicated that agriculture accounts for 4.2% of total government expenditure, and this share will go up to about 14.6% by 2015 and 18.6% by 2017 as youth venture into agriculture as a source of employment ( Diao et a 2012)

Modernization and automation of farming processes, would help draw a high number of the affected demographics into agricultural industry and also push the efficiency of general operations in the sector. The youths account for 70% of the population and with over 80% of rural youths engaged in subsistence farming, and an even higher percentage already using mobile devices (Deji O.F. 2011), this represents a large market for ICT application in the agricultural sector. The motivation is quite simple - to produce smarter and efficient agro-entreprenuers that would meet up to the global food challenges and our local employment issues, they need smarter tools.

Kabir Onimisi Ademoh
Communication Officer
For Youth Agro-Entrepreneurs