Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mobile phones help farmers turn a new leaf

By JOSHUA MASINDE jmasinde@ke.nationmedia.com

Eliud Birgen Kiplimo, a farmer in Eldoret, is full of praise for the mobile phone.

He wonders how else his home would manage to cut costs in farming and enhance productivity without the handy gadget.

He uses his handset a lot in seeking information on the best farming practices and techniques, as well as better seed varieties, besides finding the best market prices.

Through the phone, he accesses the Internet and the short message services. These, he says, are changing the face of agriculture and conventional extension services.

The mobile platform has helped him cut costs, as he does not have to pay an expert for advice on productivity, nor have to travel long distances or spend a lot of time to find appropriate prices or buyers for his produce.

He also has the option of receiving payments via the mobile money service, after which he does a direct transfer to his bank account.

“It has improved productivity by instantly accessing information on various breeds and identifying the highly productive ones,” he says.

“The phone helps me know when to supply maize to the Cereals Board, and just how much other buyers are offering for the produce.”

Mr Kiplimo, who juggles his engagement in farming and post-graduate studies, says it is easier to communicate with farm hands on what pesticides to administer and to seek expert advice. This has improved his agricultural productivity by 20 per cent, he says.

Farmers worldwide are faced with the challenge of feeding an ever-rising global population, which is expected to increase food demand by 70 per cent come 2050, against diminishing agricultural land.

A report by the Communications Commission of Kenya shows that mobile phone penetration in the country stands at 67.2 per cent — roughly 26 million Kenyans. This has made it easy for farmers to access useful information.

Some farmers simply call radio stations during agricultural programmes to seek information on the best practices to adopt.

Harvard Kennedy School Practice of International Development professor Calestous Juma says the short-term impacts of mobile phones on agriculture can be manifested in improved efficiency through better access to financial services, access to agricultural information, streamlined value chain management through data visibility and enhanced access to markets.

His book, The New Harvest, published in 2010, further shows that mobile phones are becoming increasingly important in agricultural innovation, where they have been used to transfer and store money and check market prices, as well as weather information.

However, the professor says that the success of mobile phones in promoting agriculture is dependent on the content they deliver. He says a more dramatic impact will come from the adoption of mobile broadband by African farmers.

“When this happens, mobile phones will become learning platforms and part of a new generation of extension services. Farmers will be able to access the global fund of scientific and technological knowledge at affordable prices. Instead of farmers being in the pockets of agricultural classrooms, the classrooms will be in their pockets,” he says.

A report by Accenture — a global management consulting, technology and outsourcing services company — shows that mobile information platforms can “open up additional routes to potential markets, relaying information on prices of inputs and produce, and insights into how to grow and respond to climate change.”

Cases of farmers getting little produce due to high cost of inputs could be mitigated by deployment of platforms like M-Farm, which has a provision for group purchasing, group selling and price information at affordable rates.

Some farmers use this platform to pool resources to purchase agricultural inputs.

“The application also enables farmers to identify markets for their produce, and the best prices,” says M-Farm chief executive Jamila Abass.

He adds: “Anyone with a phone can access this platform by sending a short message to a premium number to access market information on input and commodity prices”.

Use of such platforms also axes middlemen and brokers, as farmers get direct access to the markets.

Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange chief executive officer James Kundu says a farmer can access daily market prices of commodities like maize by writing the name of the commodity and sending an SMS to a specified code of the mobile service provider.

This is designed to deliver wholesale buying prices for about 20 commodities in selected Kenyan markets.

The commodities include cereals, beans, fresh produce, livestock and farm inputs like fertiliser and maize seeds.

“Once farmers know the prices of various commodities, they can bargain with traders who would otherwise want to exploit them.”

He added that the service has been replicated in Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria.

The Accenture report says use of mobile phone technology can increase smallholder farmers’ incomes in developing countries by 11 per cent to Sh11.9 trillion by 2020, and reduce carbon emissions by five megatonnes.

Prof Juma says the main challenge facing mobile technology is in extending rural broadband infrastructure, which could be done through private-public partnerships.

In many areas, it will require complementary investments in rural energy, transport and irrigation.

Another challenge is the low literacy levels among rural folk, including farmers and agribusiness personnel, poor ICT infrastructure and small quantities of produce of varying quality offered by smallholder farmers.