The value of communication

Bjorn Furuholt
Edmund Matotay

Improved access to cell phones has resulted in great changes through the entire cycle of farming life and along every link of the value chain.

What kind of information do farmers need to participate in value chains?
At the start of the farming year, they need information about fertilisers, seed types, prices, and weather information. When harvesting and marketing what they grow, their need for information is even stronger. Farmers need to collect information about preservative chemicals from agricultural extension officers, crop stocks and prices from the markets, and even road situation and transport costs from local contacts and transport suppliers.

How can farmers use the information to improve the efficiency of the value chain?
Rural farmers in Tanzania, where we conducted our research, mainly use their cell phones for simple one-to-one communication. Very few mentioned using other media, like radio. They simply do not rely on these methods in the same way that they rely on cell phones. Cell phones save farmers money and time because they no longer have to travel to look for the best seeds and to get advice from extension officers.

Cell phones have also helped farmers organise extra labour from distant farms and villages for the planting and harvesting periods, and they make voice calls to local transport owners to negotiate cost and availability. Sometimes, groups of farmers will get together and negotiate tractor prices to get a better deal. The phones also play a role when farmers are hiring and borrowing farm implements. Farmers borrow oxen, ploughs and harrows from each other because it is not possible for any one farmer to own all the equipment.

How have these improvements changed the way farmers work?
Farmers can now communicate with extension officers and agrovets in real time. They are able to make decisions about which seeds and species of crops to plant depending on weather conditions and soil types. This has often doubled yields and improved the quality of their produce.  Owning and using cell phones has also boosted farmers’ confidence because it brings them into contact with agricultural experts and gives them direct access to market information.

How do farmers benefit from being part of a value chain?
Our data show that improved communications and access to information via cell phones has resulted in great changes through the entire cycle of farming life and along every link of the value chain; because of this, it has helped farmers to take control of their businesses. Farmers are able to reduce some of the risks associated with their businesses, and many are more proactive in taking care of their businesses. Better access to market information via cell phones has increased opportunities for farmers. These positive changes have led to higher incomes and improved livelihoods.

Are those advantages great enough to justify the cost of buying and using a cell phone?
For sure. Even if people in rural Tanzania in general are very poor, they are willing to spend a remarkably large amount of money on running a cell phone, which shows that they feel they gain many benefits from it. It is not a luxury item – most of the calls made relate to investments, information seeking and crisis handling rather than leisure.  And, they are not buying expensive handsets but cheap, user-friendly and simple phones, often with a torch that they use at night.

What needs to be done to improve information services?
Some information providers send updated market information to farmers’ cell phones. But this effort is not effective, and our observations show that most farmers are not aware of these services. We recommend that cell phone companies establish a wider, affordable and effective service offering instant market prices and additional, relevant market information.

We also suggest developing the existing money transfer systems using cell phones in order to make the service more reliable and affordable in rural areas where banking services are limited. Farmers have emphasised that mobile money transfers will considerably reduce the risk of being robbed. Currently money transfer services have been a great success in neighbouring Kenya, and have revolutionised the way financial services are accessed there. 

Are cell phones likely to remain the principle method of connecting farmers to information services in the coming years?
The overwhelming majority of people living in ACP countries do not have the technological resources to connect to the internet. Even those who can connect – through telecentres or cybercafés, for example – do not know what information is available or how to access it. The advent and spread of mobile technology can ease this concern.

More than any other technology, cell phones have spread at a breathtaking rate in developing countries. The immense potential that mobile technology has for development cannot be over-emphasised. Our educated guess is that mobile technology will quickly grow to make the internet affordable even for poor people in rural Africa, helping them to become citizens of the Global Village in the near future.

Bjorn Furuholt (bjorn.furuholt@uia.no) is an associate professor at the Department of Information Systems, University of Agder, Norway ( www.uia.no)

Edmund Matotay (edmund.matotay@gmail.com) is a lecturer at Mzumbe University, Tanzania ( www.mzumbe.ac.tz)

They are the joint authors of the paper, The developmental contribution from mobile phones across the agricultural value chain in rural Africa http://goo.gl/NJB80

15 February 2012

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