DigiFarms for the world
There are more than 500 million smallholder farmers across the world, many of whom have limited access to the information and resources which would allow them to truly flourish. A significant number of these farmers are located in the places where the population is growing fastest, meaning that there is soon going to be a lot more strain on their food production capabilities.
One solution being put into place at the moment involves the proliferation of communications technology to provide access to affordable services which are desperately needed by farmers. Whether that is having information on diseases or horticulture to hand, or access to micro-loans or discounts to fund the purchase of seeds and fertiliser, it can only help.
The programme works via a text message-based mobile phone system designed by Safaricom which works with the most basic phones imaginable. Safaricom – owned by Vodafone – has form in this area having previously designed M-Pesa, a mobile phone based microfinancing service which has tens of millions of users across Africa and beyond, providing opportunities for small businesses and playing a big role in alleviating poverty.
Mercy Corps is one group trialling the new farming communications scheme in tandem with Safaricom. Its AgriFin Accelerate programme – funded to the tune of US$24.7m by the MasterCard Foundation – aims to give one million sub-Saharan farmers access to these bundles of digital and financial information which will theoretically increase farm productivity and income. Leesa Schrader, who leads the work for Mercy Corps, has said that, “when we spoke to farmers, we found they really want to learn how to become better farmers – how farming can be a business and not a horrible life of hard labour with no money.” That is a worthy goal indeed.
Because sub-Saharan farmers have traditionally operated small farms in far-out rural areas they have largely remained out of the reach of financial services and even agricultural companies. When you become an afterthought to the banks, it is too easy to get left behind. Potential goes unfulfilled and generations of the same families remain in poverty. If you cannot make money beyond the very basics of what you need to survive then you can never improve your lot. The spiral self-perpetuates, and the misery continues.
The six year Mercy Corps programme aims to change this reality by proving that these rural farmers are viable customers for big banks to loan money to, and in turn to change the farmers’ fortunes. They are going about this by allowing farmers to top up their money with small loans from the MasterCard Foundation and Financial Sector Deepening Kenya which the farmers can then use to buy seeds, fertiliser and all the rest through the M-Pesa mobile phone system. These loans are fully backed, and are therefore zero risk.
This newfound financial power is combined with conveniently available knowledge on crop cycles, diseases, how to run a business and much more that people have in their pockets through AgriFin Accelerate. Suddenly, the path to one day leaving poverty is clear, to the benefit of everyone.
If this trial can convince banks that they can safely loan to small farmers, then there is scope to grow. As previously mentioned, there are half a billion smallholder farmers across the world, and the majority of them need help.
The global population classed as being in poverty was as high as 42% at the beginning of the 1980s. Together, the world managed to reduce this figure to just less than 11% by 2013 – however, all of the ‘low hanging fruit’ has gone. Eradicating the remaining 11% of global poverty will be much, much harder than the previous 30% was, meaning that schemes like that being trialled by Mercy Corps and Safaricom have become more important. We need to be more ingenious and imaginative than ever before, which is why trials like this are worth supporting.