Although cell phones have become our constant companions and personal play-things, in many parts of the world, having access to a cell phone means more than being able to check email or update a Facebook status at a moment’s notice. For rural farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, phones can be simple, yet essential, tools for keeping their businesses alive. In an era driven by the immediacy of information, aid programs cannot underestimate the value of cell phones in developing countries as they begin to connect parts of the world initially left out of globalization.
Thanks to the advent of the smart phone, you’re probably reading this during your morning commute or as you wait in line at the store, and your “Crackberry” will most likely be the last thing you see before you go to bed. And in Africa, cell phone subscriptions have been increasing steadily as well— nearly fivefold in the past decade—putting phones into the hands of the entrepreneurial farmer. In the most isolated communities, phones have now become the most efficient method to acquire supplies, contact clients, gather information about the market, and promote their product.
Cell phones also play a key role in the farming process by delivering important information to rural farmers who are otherwise isolated from the internet or other forms of expert advice. For example, during the first stages of planting, deciding how much fertilizer to use in the fields can be difficult. Use too little, and the crop may not receive enough nutrients; use too much, and farmers end up wasting money and polluting near-by water sources.
Roland Buresh from the International Rice Research Institute has worked with his colleagues to develop a set of over-the-phone diagnostic questions that help farmers find a happy medium. Farmers can answer questions about the size of their field, last year’s yield, state of the land, and so on, using the phone’s keypad, while a computer calculates these factors in a standard algorithm. The farmer then receives a brief text message describing the correct type and amount of fertilizer to use. The efficiency would put American Idol’s call- and text-in systems to shame.
These types of personalized phone questionnaires have also branched out to include other helpful resources as well. National weather services can now deliver forecasts via text message to help farmers prepare for upcoming weather conditions. Farmers can also find out how much their crop is selling for in the city markets and decide whether or not it is worth it to travel from their village into the city. This prevents farmers from making the trek only to discover that the prices are too low for them to make a profit.
One of the newest mobile innovations, however, has been using cell phones as a banking tool. Mobile Transactions, a financial services company for the “unbanked,” allows customers to use their phones like an ATM card. Through this mobile program, farmers without bank accounts can use their phones to pay for supplies, manage agricultural inputs, collect and store information about customers, and build credit. By working with USAID’s PROFIT program, Mobile Transactions has also helped agribusiness agents better communicate with individual farmers. This partnership helps agents better understand the farmers they’re working with and provides insight into the tools, inputs, and education each farmer and community needs.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, funders and the development community may want to reevaluate the potential of resources that so many developing countries are already starting to take advantage of. It can be as simple as providing advice where it is easily accessible, just a speed dial away.