How Do Smallholder Farmers Access Information?

31 January 2014

To help them make the most of their harvests, smallholder farmers need access to a range of information that can help them decide when best to buy inputs or sell their yields, saving them time and money; plan for weather changes that can help them capitalize on rainfall or protect plants against frost; pick the best-yielding seed varieties; and distinguish between disease and pests and respond appropriately.

A man puts maize through a grinder
Photo Credit: Mohammad Saiful Islam

Although much remains to be learned about smallholder farmers’ demand for agricultural information and related financial services, lessons from Mercy Corps’ Agri-Fin Mobile program suggest that disseminating that information can be tricky—and costly.

We began with a premise: Mobile phones could help bridge the gap between the information farmers need to increase productivity and reliable sources for that information. But despite widespread usage and network connections, especially in rural areas, we discovered that mobile phones are not a panacea.

Our findings are derived from a three-year initiative to increase productivity for 180,000 rural farmers in Indonesia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe by providing them better access to technical agricultural information through mobile-based technologies.

Yet even though we had a clear sense of what that information was, we learned that how it was disseminated reflected farmers’ willingness to trust—and act on—it. In fact, based on a survey we conducted in August 2012 as part of the Agri-Fin Mobile program, radio and face-to-face consultations came out on top as the farmers’ primary sources of information.

These channels, however, are less efficient than mobile phones, which, given their prevalence, can be a ready source for real-time information passed directly to smallholder farmers from financial institutions. But how can these institutions, working together with mobile network operators, help increase uptake of mobile information services?

Based on farmers’ feedback, here are some recommendations on how to improve delivery of mobile information services and promote demand for these services in the process.

Determine gaps in services that inhibit demand

While new financial or information services may be attractive, some farmers resist them for the simple reason that they would require changing to a new SIM card. Hence, deeper knowledge of the current mobile infrastructure and service usage by farmers could enhance product development and service delivery. Possible solutions include: (i) supporting farmers during transition and absorption; (ii) developing “MNO agnostic” platforms that farmers can utilize without opting out of existing plans; and (iii) recognizing that farmers’ continued usage hinges on offering value for their money through a suitable billing plan and ensuring clear understanding of the actual cost of such plans (e.g. by declaring transaction fees or kick-in membership dues).

Tap existing channels to farmers

Existing resources for farmers can also play a pivotal role in promoting demand by improving their experience with mobile information services. Among these “channels to farmers” are bulk buyers, who are on the ground and can provide immediate advice and problem-solve when farmers face technical problems after sign-up; and “lead farmers,” who support coordination but also act as local experts trusted by farmers and can therefore support the transition to new information technologies.

Looking Ahead

Making information “mobile” can massively increase outreach to smallholder farmers, helping connect them with market players and financial services providers directly—and at relatively little cost. But the potential of mobile information services far exceeds farmers’ current demand for it. And though that should not dissuade donors and those they support from seeking ways to increase uptake of these services, it is an argument for better understanding why smallholder farmers prefer more traditional sources of information.

Lesley Denyes is the Mercy Corps Program Director for the SDC-funded Agri-Fin Mobile Program, a unique approach to bundling agriculture services with financial services through mobile platforms in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Indonesia.

This blog post is part of a series on understanding demand for smallholder financing, which brings together a range of perspectives on farming households' array of financial services needs. Read the rest of the posts in the series here.

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