FOODNET: information is changing things in the marketplace

Shaun Ferris

Shaun Ferris explains how FOODNET, an ASARECA marketing and agro-enterprise network for East and Central Africa, is delivering reliable market information to farmers in Uganda, using a mix of conventional media, the Internet, mobile phones and other ICTs. In Uganda, FOODNET's market information services currently reach over 7 million people each week.

Four years ago farmers in Uganda were at the mercy of traders when it came to selling their produce. Traders were able to force down prices, as farmers had little idea of price movements and even less appreciation of market trends. Middlemen were able to pocket excessive commissions by exploiting unnecessarily large price differences between nearby markets. The results of this asymmetry in access to market information were low prices for farmers and high prices for consumers.

Today, things have changed. FOODNET 1, a regional agricultural development network, has introduced three low-cost services that enable farmers, traders, and consumers to obtain accurate market information whenever they need it. In Uganda, FOODNET’s market information services currently reach over 7 million people each week.

The national market information service is run by FOODNET in association with the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Industry. Each day, agents collect price information on 32 commodities from four markets in the capital Kampala, and each week data on 28 commodities from 19 market centres across the country. This information is rapidly collated and relayed back to a range of clients including farmers, traders, processors, development agencies and policy makers via FM radio, mobile phones, email and the Internet.

FM radio and mobile phones

The main clients of the service are the many millions of small-scale farmers and traders scattered across the country. The best means of accessing these rural communities, where many people cannot read, is through FM radio. Each week, a 15-minute radio programme is broadcast to the nation via 12 FM radio stations in eight local languages.

In six districts of Uganda, the National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS) has linked up with FOODNET to provide a localized marketing service. This service, which is based on a pilot project funded by CTA, produces radio programmes and training specifically related to local marketing opportunities. FOODNET and the BBC are supporting this process by developing educational programmes that encourage farmers to adopt ‘collective marketing’ techniques, as group action enables farmers to use market information more effectively.

In the past five years mobile phones have been widely adopted in Uganda – there are now more than 800,000 phones in circulation. FOODNET has cashed in on this trend by establishing a commodity price database that can be accessed by SMS. In addition to voice communication, mobile phone users can now type in a key word such as ‘maize’ and send a text message to the MTN 2 service provider and receive an instant update on the prices of maize on markets across the country. This information is used by farmers, farmers’ associations and also by travelling traders who can identify market price differentials and shift lower-priced goods to higher-priced markets. It is these activities that make markets operate more efficiently.

The Internet and WorldSpace

For larger traders, policy makers and development organizations, market information is posted on the web and data can be emailed to subscribers on a daily or weekly basis ( www.foodnet.cgiar.org and http://radioworks.africacentral.net). The Internet is also being used to build up a Regional Agricultural Trade Intelligence Network (RATIN; www.ratin.net) for maize and beans traders throughout East Africa. In an increasingly globalized world, traders can only be competitive in their regional markets if they have access to accurate, timely regional market information.

Various new technologies are being tested to support the expansion of market information services into Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. For example, to facilitate the transmission of text and voice data, FOODNET has linked up with RadioWorks to establish a regional network of FM radio stations linked via WorldSpace satellite. Using WorldSpace technology, FOODNET hopes to reach an audience of 25 million farmers by the end of 2004.

What does this mean for farmers?

For many farmers, FOODNET’s market information services mean that, for the first time, they have access to reliable price data. Surveys have shown that farmers consider market information their second highest priority after roads. Farmers appreciate the information because it helps them in their negotiations with traders. Farmers’ associations are also making good use of the information as they can bulk commodities and can more easily grade their produce. Farmers claim that access to market information has raised farm gate prices by between 5–15 % against general prices. Market analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute has shown that over the past four years the number of markets dominated by farmers’ associations has increased from 4 to 8. This is a very positive trend.

In a recent programme on the BBC World Service, a trader was reported as saying ‘It’s not easy to cheat farmers these days because they are getting information about market prices from the radio and some have access to a mobile phone. Things are changing’.

Shaun Ferris is coordinator of Foodnet in Uganda

1. FOODNET is an ASARECA marketing and agro-enterprise network for East and Central Africa, funded by USAID.
2. MTN is the South African Mobile Telephone Network

05 May 2004

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