The rapid spread of mobile technology across the developing world is changing the lives of millions. Its impact has been particularly keenly felt in agriculture, typically the largest employer in developing countries, where mobile phone ownership has been directly linked to increased productivity and higher incomes. Phones help to commercialise agriculture, providing access to markets and the ability to compare prices. The World Bank Group’s ICT in Agriculture research project cites the example of fishermen in Kerala in southern India. Once cheap mobile phones became available, the fishermen began using them to compare prices at other beaches along the coast. By 2001, over 60% of fishing boats were using mobile phones to coordinate sales, increasing profits and cutting wastage.
Such ad hoc local initiatives are now being complemented by dedicated services such as Kenya-based M-Farm, which provides crop prices in five different markets via SMS. Mobile services are also being used to mitigate against risks, providing information on weather and pests. Farmer Connect provides information and advice to over 100,000 farmers in Africa and India on everything from weather reports to policy changes and guidance on which crops to grow. Kilimo Salama, also from Kenya, insures farmers against drought and excess rain using a system activated by barcodes on seed and fertilizer packaging.
Finally, mobile technology is also being used to provide information and education to all levels of farmers, in particular to the numerous smallholders and subsistence farmers who live perilous lives. One of the most sophisticated offerings in this latter category is a new app from the Haller Foundation. Launched last November in Kenya, it aims to educate ordinary people in sustainable farming methods, allowing them to convert disused land to agriculture and grow crops to feed themselves.
Swiss environmentalist Rene Haller first came to prominence in the 70s when, using his own methods, he restored an old quarry in Mombasa in Kenya into a wildlife sanctuary. In 2004, Louise Piper and Julia Hailes set up the Haller Foundation to continue Haller’s work in helping Kenyan subsistence farmers living on dry, eroded land to harvest water, rehabilitate their land, and farm sustainably so that they could become self-sufficient.
Haller has a farmer education centre in Mombasa but was looking for a way to scale its methods and reach more people. “Mobiles are going to become part of the development solution,” says Louise Piper. “There are 2.5 billion smallholder farmers across the world but there is inadequate investment in agricultural training.” At the same time, she says, “Kenya has a unique mobile set-up that is very powerful. People have more access to mobile technology than they have to water.” The shift to smartphone use is already well under way with over 50% of phone users in Kenya owning one – a trend that will only be exacerbated by the imminent introduction of smartphones priced at $30 or less.
Haller decided that the best way to get its knowledge into the hands of as many farmers as possible was via an app that could provide information that will help farmers boost production and increase income. Which is where Jonathan Ford of London design studio Pearlfisher stepped in to help.
After meeting Julia Hailes at a conference in 2007, Ford went to see the charity’s work in Kenya for himself. “[Going there was] an epiphany for me,” he says. “I saw huge amounts of creative thinking going into solving problems for impoverished people living in the hinterland outside cities. Haller showed how you can transform barren landscapes into lush, food-producing environments which bring communities together.”
Ford has been a Haller trustee for eight years, helping with the charity’s branding and communications and, now, designing the app. “Louise had the idea that, because Rene is getting old, we needed to think about how we could create some longevity to the knowledge that’s locked up in what he does and in what happens at the farmer training centre in Mombasa, so the idea of an app came to life,” Ford explains.
“You’ve got people living in these outlying areas who have access to the world through affordable technology, which is a real game-changing moment,” he continues. “For them, access to the internet is not a question about which game they are going to play but about what information they can get access to in order to empower themselves.”
The app, which was designed by Pearlfisher with development by Red Badger, takes the essence of Haller’s farming principles and distils them into a very simple interface segmented by farming activity. There is help on everything from improving the soil, to how to collect water effectively, through to the relative nutritional value of crops that farmers may choose to grow. Users don’t even need to be able to read to use the app as there are audio options in both English and Swahili where the instructions are simply read out. This may also be an important practical consideration as the app will often be used in direct, bright sunlight where reading off a screen might be difficult.
“It’s brutally simple but gets the information across in a way that is very usable and meaningful,” Ford says. It’s also a web app which makes it device-independent, while data costs are minimised by allowing users to download what they need rather than the whole app in one go.
Local farmers are instructed in the use of the app at Haller’s farmer education centre where they come for anything from a morning to a three-month course.
Piper believes that the app “will enable us to take our methodology much further afield to expand our reach and influence over development models”.
Haller is now in negotiation with local mobile networks and handset makers, as well as other potential corporate sponsors, to support the app and get it into the hands of as many people as possible in other countries. “Our challenge now is to get funding to scale it in the way we want,” Piper says.
The Haller app and other creative solutions are addressing one of the most pressing issues for developing countries – increasing agricultural productivity. As the World Bank’s ICT in Agriculture initiative says, “The manifold benefits that accompany improvements in agricultural productivity are well known: Farmers’ incomes rise, food prices fall, and labour is freed for additional employment.”
It warns that mobile phones “are no silver bullet” but that “coupled with corresponding innovation in existing social and institutional arrangements, mobile phones have the potential to make significant contributions”. Through the development of the right products and services, governments, NGOs, brands and farmers are beginning to unlock the power of mobile communications to make a real difference to food production in the developing world.
Mobile phone-based services are revolutionising farming in the developing world. Some of the most significant include:
Users of the Safaricom network in Kenya text 20255 to receive information on current prices and to find buyers for their produce.
‘Safe Farming’ is another service operated by Safaricom in Kenya, along with the Syngenta Foundation and UAP Insurance. Farmers insure their crops when they purchase seed and fertiliser from registered vendors. Using a cameraphone, the salesperson takes a picture of a special barcode on the products, and a SMS is sent to the farmer’s phone confirming the insurance policy. Weather stations measure rainfall and other climate information in each region. When conditions fall outside historical benchmarks, insured farmers receive payouts via the M-PESA mobile money service.
Global service that “helps farmers to be kept updated of all the developments, decisions and policies affecting the sector”.
For more on Haller see haller.org.uk. For more on the impact of mobile in farming see ictinagriculture.org/sourcebook