I founded tech4farmers in Kampala, Uganda in 2012. The main idea was to use my experience with ICTs to develop a digital agricultural commodity exchange. There were several ideas behind the exchange. For one thing, I hoped it would help farmers in rural Uganda sell their produce directly to consumers or traders. My hope was that it would help them to negotiate for better prices in a transparent manner and also reduce the need for middlemen. And finally I wanted to make it easier for farmers to access genuine agricultural input supplies with warehouse receipts. I felt this would go far in promoting more structured trade along the value chains and give those at the base of the economic pyramid a better income.
In my experience, traditional extension services are still quite expensive and face many obstacles. Field extension workers have difficulty reaching some areas due to poor road networks, and they face subsistence farmers who are reluctant to adopt modern farming and post-harvest handling techniques. Since most of these rural farmers have access to mobile phones I reasoned that it would be practical to provide market prices, weather information and knowledge via these low-cost devices. Farmers would get better deals for their crops and hence generate more revenue.
Linking farmers to traders
In the Ntungamo district in western Uganda I went with my outreach team to meet Nalongo, a housewife who doubles as a smallholder farmer. She described to me the challenges she faces selling her fruits and vegetables. Since her produce consists of perishable items, they need to be turned over quickly to minimise spoilage. Through the tech4farmers initiative, I have been able to initiate a positive impact in rural communities. I have managed to successfully link numerous other women like Nalongo to traders who buy their food items at fair prices and transport them to be sold in city markets and restaurants.
At the household level I have seen many farmers storing food items like maize in their kitchens, verandas or granaries, where humidity levels cannot be controlled properly. And others suffer high post-harvest losses when their stocks are damaged by weevils or rats. At tech4farmers we have managed to organise these farmers into small groups so they can bulk their produce together in order to access certified warehouses and store grain under reliable conditions. As a result, they can offer higher quality produce, for which buyers are willing to pay a premium price. The results in the Kamwenge district have been particularly remarkable. There are many maize farmers there, who now bulk and grade their produce and also fetch better prices through collective marketing.
Still, some people in rural areas still treat ICTs and mobile money with suspicion. So I have been spending a lot of time encouraging the more progressive farmers in my community to act as role models and ambassadors to the more sceptical farmers. It is important to get as many farmers as possible to trust mobile money, because it has opened a whole new frontier for them. It is a powerful tool that promotes financial inclusion for the rural poor, who still carry out most of their business transactions in cash.
ICTs and literacy
Getting people in rural areas to trust ICTs and the tools it provides is one challenge. Another is getting the government to support these initiatives. I have personally canvassed the government’s support on several occasions. I did this by lobbying the relevant line ministries, essentially trying to increase these initiatives’ chances of success by persuading the government to nurture and develop a good policy and regulatory environment. But I also strongly believe that the private sector has to play the leading role in attracting sufficient capital and investment to boost the agricultural sector.
The high rate of illiteracy in rural areas in Uganda is still alarming. It is much higher than in urban areas. Literacy is not only a key tool in everyday life, but an important one for using ICTs as well. Much of the agricultural information accessed on mobile phones requires a minimum level of literacy.
That is why I have spent a great deal of time engaging locals who are educated to become trainers for people in their communities. If you consider that about 65% of the Ugandan population works in agriculture, most of whom are peasants and smallholders (only a small number are commercial farmers), then it is the agricultural sector – more than any other – that has a good chance of transforming the economy.
Uganda has fertile arable land with good rainfall and is famous for the cash crops it exports, such as coffee and tea. If the agricultural sector is professionalised and made profitable, then I will remain confident, motivated and energized at all times to reach out and explore ways in which I can empower more farmers with ICTs in a sustainable and progressive manner.
by Mark Speer
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