In the Tominian district of eastern Mali, farmers have to rely on the short, three-month rainy season to grow the crops they need for the rest of the year. The region’s dry season lasts up to nine months, leaving farmers vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns.
Tominian farmers protect a shea tree seedling in their fields. (Photo credit: Sahel Eco)
But farmers are finding ways to cushion themselves from these uncertainties and ensure a steady source of income to feed and care for their families. They are selling nuts, fruits, and honey that they collect from trees in the surrounding forest. Growing trees can be more reliable than cultivating crops because they are more resistant to drought. And, they have a different growing pattern, enabling farmers to sell their products year round.
Farmers are growing a variety of fruit trees, including shea—a popular tree across the dry Sahel region that stretches from Senegal to Sudan at the southern fringe of the Sahara desert. Women farmers collect shea nuts, which they process into shea butter products, such as creams, lotions, and soap, that they sell at the local market. And, because the shea fruit ripens at the beginning of the rainy season, it is an important source of food security at a time when families may not have much to eat.
In this week’s episode, research intern Kaia Clarke discuss one tool that for farmers is even more important than the seeds, soil, and water needed to cultivate food for the table and to sell at the market—knowledge. From five-day weather forecasts and new techniques in planting to up-to-date information on current market prices, the more farmers know the more they can benefit. And as cell phones become more prevalent worldwide, farmers are gaining even more access to the information they need.
According to the U.N. Population Division, over 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas and over half of all Indians are farmers. Yet access to technology and information in many areas is limited, meaning farmers are often left uninformed and at the mercy of erratic weather and disease and pest outbreaks. And even in good growing conditions, farmers may not have access to price information that could help them negotiate with buyers or decide which markets to bring their products to.
Caption: Indian farmers are increasingly using mobile phones to get useful information on weather and agricultural markets. (Photo credit: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters)
But across rural India, mobile phones are quickly becoming an indispensable tool for farmers, helping to shrink the information gap.
While computers and the internet have been slow to reach Indian villages, mobile phones are becoming increasingly common in even the most remote locations as Indian mobile networks expand. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 18 million subscriptions were added in August 2010 alone, bringing the total number of subscriptions to roughly 670 million. Over 50 percent of the population in India has access to a mobile phone.
Many mobile phone makers, including big hitters like Nokia and Sony and smaller Indian companies like Micromax and Maxx Mobile, have kept devices basic and affordable and payment plans are often pay-as-you-go, making mobile phones accessible to people of nearly all income levels. (more…)
Danielle Nierenberg with Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions General Manager (photo: Bernard Pollack)
In addition to hoes and shovels, more and more farmers in sub-Saharan Africa carry another agricultural “tool”: a cell phone.
Over the last decade, cell-phone use in Africa has increased fivefold, and farmers are using their phones to gain information about everything from markets to weather. For example, farmers can find out prices before they make the long trips from rural areas to urban markets, giving them the option to wait to sell until prices are higher. Agricultural extension agents and development agencies also use mobile phones to communicate with farmers, letting them know about changes in weather that could affect crops.
Farmers and agribusiness agents in Zambia are also using cell phones as bank accounts, to pay for orders, to manage agricultural inputs, to collect and store information about customers, and to build credit. Mobile Transactions, a financial services company for the “unbanked,” allows customers to use their phones like an ATM card, says Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions General Manager. An estimated 80 percent of Zambians, particularly in rural areas, don’t have bank accounts, making it difficult for them to make financial transactions such as buying seed or fertilizer. But by using Mobile Transactions, farmers are not only able to make purchases and receive payment electronically, they are also building a credit history, which can make getting loans easier.
Mobile Transactions also works with USAID’s PROFIT program to help agribusiness agents make orders for inputs, manage stock flows, and communicate more easily with agribusiness companies and farmers. Perhaps most importantly, the partnership helps agents better understand the farmers they’re working with so that they can provide the tools, inputs, and education each farmer and community needs.
In addition, e-banking and e-commerce systems can help make better use of agricultural subsidies. Mobile Transactions worked with AGRA and CARE to develop an e-voucher system for obtaining conservation farming inputs. Farmers receive a scratch card with funds that they can redeem via their phones to purchase tools or other inputs from local agribusiness agents. Unlike paper vouchers, there’s no delay in moving the money, and farmers can get what they need immediately, such as seed during planting season or fertilizer when it can be used most effectively. And because donors are using Mobile Transactions to distribute the vouchers, they’re acting as a stimulant to the private sector, rather than distorting the market.