Agro-dealers in several African nations use cell phones to network with other traders and advisors, and keep farmers updated on the latest agricultural techniques.
Aisha Zachariah, from Tamale in northern Ghana, used to grow seed to sell to other farmers in her community. She wanted to expand her business and provide other merchandise such as fertilisers and crop-protection products. Aisha knew she would first have to improve her technical and business management skills, so she followed a training course run by the Agro-Dealer Development Programme, an initiative of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). She has since opened a shop selling a range of agricultural inputs, and is also offering valuable information on crop production.
Aisha is just one of thousands of people trained by the Agro-Dealer Development Programme (ADP) since it was established in 2007. The project operates in 11 African countries, including Ghana, Mali, Mozambique and Uganda, to train agro-dealers (entrepreneurs selling agricultural products) to provide the farmers that visit their shops with advice on new cultivation techniques and good agricultural practice.
‘This is a market-based approach to give farmers access to the skills and inputs they need to enhance productivity and increase income,’ says Kehinde Makinde, a programme officer with ADP in Ghana. ‘It is not enough to provide only information, as extension officers do, or to provide only inputs, as traditional agro-dealers do. Farmers need to have access to both if they are to be able to use the inputs effectively and get the best return for their investment.’
The advantage of training agro-dealers to deliver crop information is that they come into regular contact with farmers and are also aware of the local conditions, such as soil quality, climate and common pest threats. They can give farmers very specific advice on how to cultivate and treat their crops to achieve the best results in that area. But ICTs also allow the agro-dealers to provide the latest market prices and put farmers in touch with buyers, processors and transporters.
After their initial training, which involves setting up a network of information sources, the agro-dealers stay updated using cell phones to communicate with other dealers, local associations and other information services. They often use their phones to organise delivery times with suppliers, ask for and share advice with colleagues, and receive regular automatic SMS messages containing market data.
The ADP developed a database of agro-dealers that they use to quickly send SMS alerts, either to all the dealers or to selected smaller groups. The system has been used to inform dealers about the availability of new seed stocks and deals offered by suppliers. The database has become a directory of agro-dealers that includes information on the types of products they sell, whether or not they have received training, the GPS coordinates of their location and contact details.
The team is now using the location data to develop maps of agro-dealers and publishes the data on Google Maps. The project team can then use maps to identify areas where there are fewer agro-dealers, which helps them to plan future training services.
All the agro-dealers are trained locally, as near to their shops as possible in order to minimise the time they spend away from their business. Experts from AGRA and other partner organisations, such as the IFDC and CNFA, deliver the training courses.
The courses are flexible and can be taken as a series of short sessions spread throughout the growing season, or in a single module lasting around six days. At the end of the course, dealers receive certificates that are recognised by their national regulatory authorities. This ensures that government departments are kept informed about the courses, and know which dealers have been trained. The ADP also works with smaller agro-dealer associations, helping them to set up and offer training courses to individual agro-dealers, and eventually to other associations.
The ADP team cooperates with colleagues on other AGRA programmes, especially those working with farmer organisations and other small and medium-sized enterprises. The various programmes combine their electronic databases to identify and develop connections between the various parties involved in agricultural markets. Farmers are encouraged to operate in organised groups to buy inputs in bulk, and negotiate prices for the larger, combined quantities of goods.
Another aspect of AGRA’s work is tracing the value chains for various commodities to ensure that information flows to everyone involved in the system, starting with the researchers in the university agricultural departments. The project team links plant breeders and soil scientists with seed production companies, and continues the connection through to the agro-dealers themselves by providing them with information on best agricultural practices which they can pass on to farmers.
The agro-dealers are encouraged to set up demonstration plots, establish information centres and organise input exhibitions as methods of delivering practical information to farmers. They also have a role in creating awareness of issues such as pest-management techniques that may arise in the course of the growing season.
AGRA has recognised that the agro-dealers could use their position to promote products that would yield them higher profits. This is one of the issues that is tackled as part of the training programme. ‘The main reason for the training is to develop the professionalism of the dealers and help them to focus on the needs of farmers,’ says Makinde.
‘The agro-dealers learn that their business is dependent on the farmers they supply,’ adds Makinde. ‘If they provide wrong or inappropriate information, the farmers will soon realise this, and stop buying from that particular dealer. The training course also shows the dealers that they should broaden their range of products in order to give farmers a greater choice.’
If they are to provide more products, the agro-dealers need extra financing. It can be difficult for small-businesses to obtain credit from a bank, so the ADP acts as a loan guarantor with a number of financial institutions to. But for dealers operating in rural areas, there is often no bank nearby. In such cases, the ADP makes use of mobile banking services, ensuring that the loans go directly to the cell phones of dealers.
‘We have to work with the banks to help them understand that the perceived risk of lending to small agribusinesses is much greater than the actual risk,’ explains Makinde. The banks are starting to see that now because more than 80% of loans are repaid on time, and that figure is as high as 95% in some areas. The loans and electronic payments have introduced many agro-dealers and their associations to banking services for the first time.’
The agro-dealers are not expected to replace extension officers. AGRA hopes that their newly-trained entrepreneurs will complement the work of other agricultural information services. ‘Both methods are necessary,’ says Makinde. ‘The extension system in Africa is very weak. Extension officers are not adequately mobilised by their governments to meet the information needs of farmers. The ADP develops skills and institutional strengths and ensures that the latest information gets from the research institutes to small-scale farmers.’
So far, AGRA has trained more than 10,000 agro-dealers. ‘It has been quite an achievement to train so many,’ says Makinde, ‘but it is still a long way from what we need to be able to get agro-dealers close to every community of farmers.’ It remains a challenge to develop agribusinesses in very remote areas where there are no roads to deliver supplies on a regular and dependable basis.
AGRA’s research has shown that, on average, Ghanaian farmers, for example, have to travel 9 km to reach their nearest agro-dealer, with some going as far as 15 km. The next step of the agro-dealer programme is to expand the input businesses in these under-served areas. And Makinde is confident that their system can make a difference to farmers.
‘In the places where we have worked we have seen major changes in the lives of farmers and the landscape,’ he says. ‘The dealers who have had the training show greater understanding of their clients’ needs. But most importantly, the farmers no longer have to go as far to get the inputs and information they need. For instance , the average distance they now travel is down to 6 km in some parts of Ghana, and we will continue working to keep improving conditions for farmers.’