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Digital African agriculture September 6th, 2020 by

In the report Byte by Byte, seventeen African and international experts shed some optimistic light on the digital future of agriculture in Africa. In many ways, the continent is ahead of other regions of the world.

Africa is leading the world in cell phone finance. In Kenya in 2007, Vodaphone started M-Pesa for the mobile network operator, Safaricom. M-Pesa, (from “M” for mobile, and “pesa,” the Kiswahili word for money) offers simple financial services on the phone. Customers go to a small shop to exchange cash for online money which they can save or send to anyone else in Kenya who has a mobile phone. It is an effective way for rural and poor people to send and receive money. People in the city can send cash back home, to invest in agriculture, for example.

M-Pesa was so popular that mobile money has been replicated in Malawi, Uganda and many other African countries. Rural Africans who were underserved by banks were able to make use of the little shops that sprang up all over the small towns and in peri-urban neighborhoods.

Mobile finance is not the only innovative digital service in Africa. Other companies are offering tractor services online. TROTRO Tractor is a platform in Ghana that allows farmers to hire a tractor (and a driver), like getting a ride from Uber. Other companies use cell phones to sell agricultural supplies, or to connect farmers to buyers of agricultural produce. The largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe has been providing weather insurance to farmers on a mobile platform since 2013. The National Network of Chambers of Agriculture of Niger (RECA) has been providing commodity price information online to farmers since 2011.

The Third Eye project in Mozambique has used drones to get an aerial view of farmers’ fields, and make recommendations on irrigation for 2,800 smallholder farmers, mostly women.

Digital technology makes sense for Africa, which has a young population. Young Africans like digital technology as much as youth on other continents. One advantage is that phones are also relatively inexpensive in Africa. I’ve seen smartphones for sale in Kenya for under $40. There are some limitations. Airtime tends to be expensive in Africa, and only about half of the population is on the electric grid.

Many Africans work around the lack of electricity, paying to charge their phones at weekly markets, barbershops or other small businesses when shopping in town. The popularity of cell phones has sparked a growing demand for small solar panels that are becoming a common site, propped up in the bright sunshine outside of an earthen house.

African farmers need appropriate new agricultural technology as well as digital devices. As more African households get online, it will be easier to reach them with digital extension, including videos.

Further reading

Malabo Montpellier Panel 2019. Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s. Food System with Digital Technologies, Dakar.

Related blog stories

Cell phones for smallholdersPay and learn

Pay and learn

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos February 28th, 2016 by

In recent blogs we talked about how the people of northern Uganda are rebuilding their lives, eight years after the end of a bloody civil war. A lot of the effort is provided by enterprising local people, like Omara Waliki who works for the GADC (Gulu Agricultural Development Company). Waliki is an extensionist and a farmer himself, as are all GADC field staff. He also buys chilli and sesame for the company, and runs a small shop and a one-room agency for Post Bank, where villagers can deposit and withdraw money.

waliki stores and bankWaliki is fortunate to live in Palabek Gem, a town just large enough to have a transformer. So Waliki has electricity (most of the time). He also has a TV set, a DVD player and five DVDs compiled by Access Agriculture with training videos relevant to agriculture in Northern Uganda. Thanks to an investment by the international NGO, Mercy Corps, Access Agriculture translated the videos into Luo, the local language. Waliki’s video library covers specific crops, such as sesame, chilli, maize and cassava and general topics such as managing striga, a serious parasitic weed.

Even though Waliki is busy, it is his own self-interest that the farmers he works with perform well. The more they produce, the more they can sell to him, and the more commission he earns. Earning money is a powerful incentive that can be channeled into doing things better.

Successful buying is about successful networking, explains Robert Ogwang of GADC, much of it done on cell phones. Even in war-ravaged, northern Uganda, cell phones are farmer-friendly. Several companies compete to offer coverage; reception is good, widespread and people can buy airtime in increments as small as 15 cents US. Now every village has solar panels to charge up people’s handsets. When a farmer phones Waliki and asks how to make a seedbed for chilli, a new crop in this part of the country, Waliki asks the farmer to turn the soil and break it up. Waliki goes over and helps the farmer finish the task. Waliki also suggests that the farmer invites a few friends over, so they can learn how to make a seedbed, too. Thus helping a neighbor becomes a demonstration, which also strengthens Waliki’s relationships with the local farmers.

handful of chiliesIf the demonstration goes well, the farmers may plant chilli and have a harvest. If they developed some rapport with Waliki at the demo, they may later sell their chilli to him, or their sesame.

Waliki does extension out of enlightened self-interest. When anyone in the community asks to see the videos, Waliki invites them to his home, where he plays them the videos they want to see. (There is even one on making a chilli seedbed). About twenty or thirty people end up watching the videos each time Waliki shows them. The five DVDs have 34 videos, too many to watch in one sitting, but at one time or another, Waliki has shown all five DVDs.

The videos are so good that people still keep asking to see them. The information helps them to improve their farming.

“How many farmers have you shown them to?” I ask.

Waliki says he can’t remember. Neither can he remember how many times he has shown them, “but it is many.”

Only three people are growing chilli now in the area, but Waliki has given seed to 24 others (courtesy of GADC). The farmers are just waiting for the rains to plant their chili, which they will dry and then sell for export, to be made into hot sauce (the fiery kind that comes in tall, thin bottles).

Electricity, cell phones, chilli and learning videos are being combined creatively to help Waliki and his neighbors recover from the losses caused by the war. Winning a war is more than defeating the enemy or even about laying down arms. It’s also about building a viable life again. When the fighting stopped in Uganda around 2008, and people gradually left the refugee camps, they found that their homes and livelihoods had been destroyed. Since then they have built small, thatched houses and have planted subsistence crops. Now people are also growing cash crops, to earn the money that helps families build a more prosperous future.

For more stories on cell phones, see:

More than a mobile

Lost at sea

I thought you said “N’Togonasso”

To watch the chilli training videos, click: http://www.accessagriculture.org/category/65/Vegetables

The power of radio February 14th, 2016 by

Cell phones and FM radio stations can interact as if they were made for each other. In northern Uganda, Radio Tembo FM 103.5 broadcasts in the Luo language from a hilltop above the dusty town of Kitgum. The station combines radio with phones to help farmers get back to business after a long break. The surrounding area is still recovering from the 20 years of war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a conflict that more or less ended only about 2008. Most of the farmers spent much of the war in camps, and have only been farming again for a few years.

Radio Tembo first gained an audience by playing popular music, but then started a farm market program every Friday. The radio broadcaster would tell the listeners what was on sale in the various market towns, and list the prices. Farmers phoned, with information of their own. The market report was soon a bigger hit that the music programs.

radio announcerThe farmers use the radio to attract business. One farmer called to say that he had 20 bags of cassava for sale. Speaking live from his phone, he gave his name and the name of his village, and another listener left immediately, and bought all 20 bags.

Farmers had always liked the weather report, but the market show became so popular that Radio Tembo added an ago-business specialist, Patricko, and aired the market show every Monday through Friday from 11:30 to noon, plus an hour-long magazine program on Sunday evenings.

Radio TemboRadio stations can buy expensive hardware to handle multiple phone calls, but Radio Tembo simply places three cell phones on a desk. As soon as the announcer asks for calls, all three phones ring at once; the callers are eager to get on the air.

Some farmers call to tell their troubles. For example, one farmer rang up to say that buyers came to his house to take his four bags of sesame. They loaded the bags onto their truck, but only paid him for two bags. They said that they could give him the rest of the money in town. He gladly climbed on board the truck, but half way to town, while driving through a village, the buyers threw the farmer off the truck, shouting “thief, thief!” The bruised, humiliated farmer was able to explain himself to the villagers, but he was still hurt, and cheated out of his money.

Another farmer called to say that he had just sold his sesame for one million shillings (about $400). The next day some young thugs came to his house and beat him up and took his money.

Stories like this alert other farmers to the scams being used in the area. There are a lot of unemployed youth who grew up in refugee camps. Many of these youth are unskilled and desperate for money. Now that folks have moved out of the camps and are back on their farms, commodity buyers are returning. But it takes time for buyers and sellers to build trust, and some of the new buyers are dishonest.

Radio Tembo learns from the callers’ stories, and comes up with solutions. The broadcasters advise farmers to sell in groups, for greater safety and for more negotiating strength. The station suggests that farmers open bank accounts, so they don’t have to carry cash. In response to this, one of the local savings and credit cooperatives has begun to sponsor the market show.

Cell phones can combine with radio to allow smallholder farmers to lower transaction costs, to get accurate information about prices, to tell their problems and find solutions. Phones and radio fit together well; they are both based on the spoken word, and both are friendly to local languages. People in North Uganda didn’t invent talk radio, but they are remaking it, in their own style.

At the end of the words July 26th, 2015 by

Ask almost anyone what language is for and they will say “to communicate”. But they are wrong, of course, because people often communicate without language, and on the other hand, they often use language to complain, negotiate, and affirm identity, far beyond blunt communication.

Let me give you an example. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the money changers sit together in groups of three to six people, clutching a purse stuffed with as much as $6,000 in cash. Being in a group offers them some safety, or at least the feeling of safety from the robbers who occasionally snatch one of the fat, little purses.

To manage competition, the money changers take turns doing business, but they also look for excuses to jump in ahead of each other. This requires some negotiation.

The other day I walked up to some money changers, sitting on a busy street by a bridge. They eyed me from under the brims of their wide hats and when I met the gaze of the one on the end, she waved a little pack of bills at me, with a hopeful expression on her face. That much of the deal was non-verbal, and I could have feasibly traded my $20 bill with her without language.

The money changer assumed that I knew that $20 was worth 138 Bolivianos and she wanted me to give her two coins, so she could save her small change. She politely asked for two Bolivianos.

“I don’t have any coins,” I said, honestly.

She gave me what looked like her last handful of coins. Then in an angry stage whisper she said “nanashawan” which is Quechua and means “he is hurting me”. That bit of theater was intended for the other money changers, so that they would think that this deal was painful to her. They probably knew she was still making money, but she was already starting to bid for her next turn in line. The money changer had switched languages, from Spanish to Quechua, not to communicate, but to hide information from the customer, and to aim it at her competitors/collaborators.

In the 1980s when I lived in a country parrish in Portugal, I was struck by the language of courtesy. The back lands between the old granite houses and the fields were laced together with rough footpaths. People said something to absolutely every person they passed on the path. “Even a dog deserves a greeting,” they explained, only half joking. The greeting was often more than a simple hello. One person would guess what the other was up to.

A person might say “Are you coming from stacking straw?” if they saw someone with bits of the dried yellow stalks of hay still in her hair. Or “you have been digging potatoes,” if the person was covered in earth and was carrying a basket of tubers.

“Yes,” the second person would say. Additional information was optional, and often omitted. Folks were usually in a hurry.

The first person would always end the greeting by saying “It must be; it must be.” (Tem que ser; tem que ser).

The two neighbors on the path were not using language to communicate what kind of work they had been doing; they already knew that. They were speaking to reaffirm a relationship.

And sometimes the opposite happened, communication was wordless. I recall a hard working farmer named David Antunes. I had spent the day helping him, his wife and two teenaged sons thresh rye with a hand cranked machine. Near sunset we moved the heavy, wood-and-steel thresher. The chickens were ranging free, chasing each other all over the stone threshing floor to get the best bits of fallen grain. The machine accidently fell onto one of the half-grown chickens, crushing it to death.

David picked it up. He could have said “be more careful next time”, or he could have flung the chicken away in anger, or he could have buried it, or fed it to the pigs. But he didn’t. No one said a word, watching, waiting to see what David would do. He simply put the dead chicken in his wife’s hands. It wasn’t quite big enough to eat, but she cooked it, and that night we ate it for dinner.

In agriculture, extensionists try to use language to communicate with smallholder farmers, who usually fail to be convinced at the first go, because farmers know as well as anyone that language not only communicates, but is often used to deceive or exaggerate.

A good video helps to overcome the limits of language. For the farmers in the audience, the farmers on the screen are more believable than someone from town. Also, the video shows people working and trying out new ideas, which is more convincing because it shows that “this practice is so functional that real farmers somewhere actually tried it”. Seeing is what linguists call “the visual channel,” a second layer of information added to language, and reinforcing it, like showing a money changer that you have $20, not just telling her about it.

So while language is rarely just for communication, it can be. But you have to work at it, and learn to speak the language of your audience.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

More than a mobile May 10th, 2015 by

Mobile phones are the fastest growing business in Africa. And as with any big, money-making business, companies fight for customers, and the winners buy out their competitors. When I first visited Uganda in 2005, various mobile phone companies were competing with clever advertisements. The most eye-catching and memorable one I saw was a tricycle that combined a telephone booth and taxi.

Ten years later, after many visits to Uganda, I am back again and for some reason this image of the yellow tricycle pops up in my memory. I now realise that it was much more than an advertisement: it illustrated how mobile phone companies were already thinking of expanding from a mere phone service to something bigger. And in doing so, that they were ready to go to the customers, rather than just waiting for them to show up in their office.

Driving through the country, each town along the roadside shows that the struggle for customers continues. Nearly every other house is painted in either red or yellow: the brand colours of Airtel and MTN, the two biggest surviving mobile phone service providers. In every village, mobile vendors are selling airtime scratch cards of 500 Ugandan Shillings (0.15 Euro) to 10000 Ugandan Shillings (3 Euro) to cater to all people, including those with just a small coin in their pocket. The affordability and proximity surely helped with the rapid boost of this technology.

Another key to success is the diversification of services. Many farmers use their mobile phones to listen to the radio when working in the field. After all, having their cell phones charged in a rural shop is much cheaper than having to buy new batteries for their radio every few days.

Nowadays, mobile companies are competing with rural banks, providing internet and mobile money services (see our earlier blog Cell phones for smallholders). With amazing ease, people can send small amounts of money to their relatives across the country with hardly any transaction costs.

The penetration of mobile phone companies into the financial sector is also forcing banks to become more innovative in reaching out to rural clients. Equity Bank in Kenya, for example, through its corporate social arm the Equity Group Foundation, wants to improve the lives of at least 100 million people by 2020, partly by partnering with the international NGO Access Agriculture to start providing quality training videos in local languages to their rural clients. Highly innovative delivery mechanisms are currently being tested; given the creative energy that has gone into African mobile phone systems, these new ways of sharing good farming ideas will also be worth watching.

In some of the least developed regions of Africa, mobile phones are much more accessible than some other basic services, such as electricity, sanitation and financial services. However, most of the population has the potential to access health, banking and other essential services through mobile networks.

The continued diversification of extension service providers is helped by new technologies such as mobile phone and the internet, but equally by solar power systems that have become increasingly affordable and available in rural areas. New technologies are finally starting to benefit smallholder farmers, and so is the healthy competition between large mobile and financial institutions.

Further reading:

GSMA 2014. The Mobile Economy.

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