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The last mile

Ronald Rwakigumba

ICT Update spoke to Ronald Rwakigumba of Mercy Corps, who is responsible for the last mile of the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service.

Tell us a bit about your role in the Market-led, User-owned  ICT4Ag-enabled Information  Service (MUIIS).

My role was related to the agents who gave training. I have also been involved in setting up the ICT infrastructure. Specifically that means mobile phones, which had to be set up with a data collection tool called ONA that would make it possible to profile the farmers. If you’re familiar with mobile data collection tools, ONA falls in the family that they call open data kit. So my role was to train the agents in mobile phone literacy and make them comfortable using smartphones because not all of them had used smartphones before.

The next phase was to introduce them to the application so they could start profiling farmers. To make the graduation model a bit easier for them, we started on the first day by introducing to them the profiling tool on paper. That familiarised them with the questions that they would be asking farmers before they get distracted by smartphones, connectivity and applications. On the second day, we trained them in mobile phone literacy. How to turn on internet mobile data, for example. How to turn on GPS, because some of the questions required the GPS location to be captured. How to increase the accuracy level, because many of the farmers live in rural communities with serious barriers, such as hills and vegetation that would sometimes make it difficult to capture GPS accurately. So that was the kind of training we were giving the MUIIS agents.

The task of profiling was pretty much the work of 2016, and so towards the end of that year we started developing another technology solution, but this time with a farmer interface to make it as easy as possible for farmers to subscribe to the MUIIS business service. Based on the profiling data that we had gathered we discovered that the majority of the farmers had feature phones. So the mobile application that we developed, which is a mobile banking and information system, uses a USSD communications protocol because that can be used on feature phones. Most farmers don’t have smartphones, let alone mobile phone access.

How do farmers benefit from profiling

Once farmers have been profiled, their data is on our server and they can subscribe to the MUIIS bundle service. We also provided farmers with a way to pay, because a subscription is both an expression of interest and a paid transaction. Farmers pay 14,000 Ugandan shillings via mobile money, which goes directly to MUIIS. We had already set up a dashboard that enabled the consortium members, including CTA, to be able to view the subscriptions in real time. And when we launched the MUIIS service live for the farmers we also had a TV screen where we could actually see in real time how the subscriptions were progressing.

Uganda has two rainy seasons, so our initial launch was in March to target the first season, which runs through March, April and May. By September, when the second rainy season starts, most farmers will have harvested and aggressively sold their produce, so that’s when we did our second launch. The reason we open and lock this platform is that there is crop insurance embedded in this bundle, and to be eligible for crop insurance you should reasonably plant in the right planting season. That’s why we closed it after the first season and then opened it up in September again. We gave farmers till September-October to subscribe on an instalment plan, because some farmers cannot pay the full season’s subscription in one month. 

How have farmers responded to the service?

In the first season, about a hundred farmers paid 14,000 Ugandan shillings for the MUIIS service. What we’ve learned is that we need to adapt the marketing model because a hundred is a small number compared to the 40,000 farmers that were profiled by March 2017. In other words, we haven’t been able to sell the idea of this service to a large number of farmers yet. So this time around we are targeting more group purchases, whereas in the first season we targeted a lot of individual farmers to subscribe to the MUIIS service bundle. That means that a farmer group can buy on behalf of its members, which will hopefully increase membership numbers. We’ve adapted the MUIIS mobile purchase application to be able to accept group subscriptions now.

Do group subscriptions affect the amount of revenue you get per farmer?

Individual members still pay the same amount when they’re in a group, but MUIIS will give group organisations a commission. They incur costs in terms of mobilising farmers and selling the idea. But the revenue for that will come from what was initially being used for radio campaigns targeting individual farmers and other marketing costs. You could almost say that we’ve enlisted the farmer organisations as marketing partners. In fact, we will have a business partnership with them in the future under MUIIS where they get a commission in the same way that MUIIS gets a commission for bringing insurance business to the insurance companies.

Is there a specific example of how the MUIIS service has helped farmers?

In the first season we were able to get an idea of which farmers were prone to particular pest and disease attacks because we knew their locations. In one case, we were able to send timely SMS messages to subscribed farmers about how to deal with a major outbreak that had affected Uganda. It was even covered in various news outlets internationally. It concerned the fall armyworm, which was particularly destructive to maize. We were able to advise the farmers on which pesticide to use and how to apply it in order to address the fall armyworm. Although the attack was quite severe, some farmers who had subscribed to this package were able to salvage some of their crops.

That experience is something we’ve taken with us into the second season. For example we’ve already developed the messages for the entire season based on satellite data. And we’ve been translating those messages, because part of the feedback that we got from the first season is that English is not the best medium for most of these farmers. As a result, we have contracted translators to translate these messages into local languages to send to the farmers.

I think this will help sell the MUIIS service too. I really do feel it’s going to be unique, because no one else is providing a service like this to these farmers. Most of the information they get over the radio is very short term, usually weather predictions for a day or a week. And even then, the information isn’t always relevant to their crop levels. I think the added value of MUIIS is that instead of simply telling farmers that it’s going to rain or what the temperature is going to be, it focuses more on solutions. We cancalculate how many millimetres ofrainfall your crop needs or how muchwater over a longer period of time. Andthat can be translated into advice, aswe can tell farmers that a set amount ofwater might not be sufficient for theircrop. And that they therefore may wantto consider either conservationmethods of cultivation or irrigationmethods. So we’re focusing more onthe actionable methods as opposed to just passing on information. 

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.