It’s a simple idea: provide smallholder farmers with information via SMS to improve farming practices and thus increase their yields. In fact it’s a concept that has been replicated by NGOs and MNOs across the developing world, with varying degrees of success. However, the real challenge in launching such a service lies in building a business model that is both commercially viable to the provider whilst remaining accessible to the poorest populations.
A joint guest blog by FrontlineSMS and CRS manager Peter Mureith Climate change has severely affected the growth and production of crops on a global scale. Food security is a serious concern in many parts of Africa and Asia, and with a lower-than-expected yield in the US, unusually high rainfall in Europe and drought in the Horn of Africa, global food prices are expected to spike again in the coming year.
Catholic Relief Service (CRS) has long been using FrontlineSMS to work with communities in Eastern Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi - to support alternative ways to improve cassava farming. Cassava is a staple food in the region, with its stem, leaves and root all being put to use. In Congo, the average family consumes 5kg of cassava flour and 3kg of its leaves every day.
In the past, with higher rainfall and fewer destructive crop diseases, cassava farming was profitable and fed farmers' families. In fact, it took only 3 months to plant and harvest the cassava tubal and its leaves. Today, farming has become more challenging and costly. Lower than average rainfall and new crop diseases have reduced crop yields. Many peasant farmers have changed professions to labor-intensive and dangerous jobs such as mining, exacerbating food shortages. With lower incomes, families struggle to send their children to school and provide sufficient food, suitable housing and basic health care.
CRS began working with communities to address these problems and help alleviate food insecurity in the region. The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative (GLCI) works with 1.15 million farmers, researching best practices on curbing cassava crop diseases and working to create a seed tolerant to diseases and drought. GLCI worked through partners in each district to distribute seeds which would thrive in that specific area. Through research, GLCI discovered that isolating a cassava plant which has been affected with the new crop diseases wasn’t the solution – the problem would return if its seeds were replanted and would affect other neighboring farms. GLCI worked to build awareness and provide tools and skills that would lead to positive action among communities.
58 partners and 250 staff with 250 laptops were an essential part of the GLCI implementation strategy. CRS used FrontlineSMS to enhance their communication, ICT strategy and data collection, and assist communication with partners. Many were in very remote areas where Internet access would be unpractical, unreliable and expensive. CRS used FrontlineSMS to send reminders, schedules on training opportunities, deadlines, announcements and collect data. CRS also applied a troubleshooting solution to handle computer errors partners would encounter. Staff would simply SMS their problem to CRS and CRS would respond with a solution, via SMS.
Through GLCI, farmers increased their yield, increased their income and improved their livelihood; a positive impact that had a ripple effect to the region's economy and its food security. In one instance, a GLCI farmer* in Tanzania was able to improve his yield and income and as a result, was able to increase contributions to his saving scheme, which afforded him financial freedom to increase his farm from 0.25 acres in 2003 to 30 acres now. He is also the main distributor of cassava seeds in three main districts.
*name withheld due to confidentiality and third party rights
“Nearly 90 percent of Tanzania's residents live in rural areas, work primarily in the agricultural sector, and lack access to information, technology and markets,” Technoserve state on their website. Technoserve is an organisation which focuses its work in Tanzania on supporting farmers, cooperatives and suppliers in order to help develop rural industries. Whilst working towards these country-wide goals, keeping track of their impact is essential. Here, FrontlineSMS Community Support Coordinator, Florence Scialom, speaks with James Hangaya, Monitoring and Evaluation Analyst at Technoserve Tanzania, about how he is using FrontlineSMS to help collect the data he needs for monitoring Technoserve's Coffee Initiative project in Tanzania.
Training for farmers is a key to Technoserve’s strategy in Tanzania, and forms a large part of their Coffee Initiative project. Training sessions help small-scale coffee farmers produce better quality coffee, thus helping them to secure higher prices in the international marketplace. “Sessions are based on different topics, and include practical lessons on, for example, how much fertilizer should be used to produce the best yield,” explains James. The farmer trainers hold multiple sessions on agricultural best practices, helping farmers to use their equipment and run their farming practice more efficiently.
One of the key steps in monitoring and evaluating the success of training is to measure the changes in farmers’ behaviour. “We train approximately 12,000 farmers every year” James tells me, “and there are nearly 60 farmer trainers across the country at the moment, running courses for groups of 15 to 20 farmers at a time.” There is certainly a lot of data to keep track of, and this is where FrontlineSMS proves very helpful Technoserve's work.
After experiencing the challenges of monitoring and evaluating their training programmes using extensive paper surveys, James and the Technoserve Tanzania team decided that there must be a more efficient way. This is when they came across FrontlineSMS data collection tool, FrontlineForms. Using this tool Technoserve farmer trainers are now able to conduct all post-training evaluation via SMS.
James explains how they manage this process: “Each farmer that attends a training session is allocated an individual ID. When filling out FrontlineForms, the farmer trainers use this ID to identify which individual farmer they are collecting data on. They answer set survey questions about farmer behaviour, using a pre-defined scale of 1-10 to indicate responses. They then send them back to me in the office to analyse the data.” This gives Technoserve Tanzania the data they need, to indicate whether the training has had an impact on the way the farmers manage their crops.
In addition, farmer trainers are provided with scales to measure a sample number of farmer’s harvest weights. These weights are compared with the farmer’s previous yield, and show how much farmers are able to produce before and after Technoserve training courses. Collecting these kind of direct indicators of impact is key to monitoring the success of the Coffee Initiative training sessions, and FrontlineForms is allowing this data collection process to be done much more quickly, and at a lower cost to Technoserve Tanzania.
The transition from paper to SMS has made a great difference to work flows, as James explains; “it saves us so much time and money, because our field staff no longer have to travel from the field to deliver paper survey results to our office, which can be a journey of more than 1,000 kilometres.”
This use of SMS technology makes the data collection process more efficient in error detection, too. As James says, “If I had picked up a potential error or if there was any data missing in a paper report then I would have to send it all the way back to the field to check whether the data needed to be edited; now I am able to this much more quickly and simply, via SMS.” These efficiency savings help to demonstrate the value of using FrontlineForms as a data collection tool.
Technoserve Tanzania plan to continue using FrontlineSMS for monitoring and evaluation, and are looking at ways to optimise and extend the ways they use the software, too. “In future we are looking to use FrontlineSMS to register farmers for training sessions and track their attendance. This will allow us to provide real-time reporting from the field,” explains James.
As Technoserve get accustomed to using SMS in their day to day work flows it is clear they are finding out more and more ways for it to help them make their work quicker, easier, and more efficient. James summed up this fact well by saying, “my boss agreed that we should change to FrontlineSMS for all the things that it can do for our work!”
“TechnoServe makes a commitment to businesses and industries, working in the field with entrepreneurs and other industry stakeholders to build enterprises able to thrive on their own and generate continuing benefits for the rural poor.” You can read more about their work on their website: www.technoserve.org
This post is the latest in the FrontlineSMS Mobile Message series with National Geographic. To read a summary of the Mobile Message series click here. Amy O'Donnell, Project Manager, FrontlineSMS:Radio
The Organic Farmer, a Kenyan magazine about ecologically friendly farming practices, recently launched two radio shows aimed at smallholder farmers. John Cheburet is spearheading the use of FrontlineSMS on the radio shows, and, as Project Manager of FrontlineSMS:Radio, I was keen to speak with him. Radio represents the dominant media source for many people worldwide and it offers a vital tool for outreach, particularly to rural communities. FrontlineSMS:Radio works with community stations to discover how combining mobile phone technology with radio can engage listening audiences.
John Cheburet is a radio producer and a pioneer, offering a farmer information service for small-scale farmers and actively seeking new technologies to improve outreach. He is seen by the farming community as a friendly source of information which is vital for their livelihoods. While The Organic Farmer (TOF) was born as a print medium, John sees radio as a way to increase awareness and reach more farmers.
John’s listeners own an average of 2.5 acres. Many farm for subsistence and sell surplus to cover household needs and also pay school fees for their children. They may not have received training or know about the latest technologies, and they seek access to solutions and advice."
“In Kenya, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy and the population depends on the land both directly and indirectly. The country is a major exporter of tea and coffee, and 70% of the workforce is in agriculture and areas that service this sector.”