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How One NGO Helps Farmers Use Mobile Phones to Invest in a Better Harvest

About two-thirds of the 3 billion rural people work on land plots smaller than five acres; mobile phones can boost these farmers' productivity and income.
Mobile Phones

In Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, smallholder farmers manage 80 percent of farmland and provide up to 80 percent of the food supply. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, about two-thirds of the developing world’s three billion rural people live in small farm households and work on land plots smaller than five acres. Family members provide most of the labor on smallholder farms. Many smallholder farmers are living in extreme poverty, which is defined as living on less than US$1.90 dollars per day. “We see investing in smallholder agriculture as the most effective and sustainable way to promote food security while also alleviating poverty – these investments not only increase food production and decrease hunger, but they also improve the livelihoods of poor farmers and strengthen rural economies,” said Erin Connor, Critical Human Needs Portfolio Manager for Cisco Corporate Affairs and the Cisco Foundation.

Marème Sakho is a smallholder farmer in Keur Serigne Babou, Senegal. She occasionally purchased fertilizer from her local market, but she never saw any changes in the results of her harvest. Due to her low yields, she was unable to gain the necessary amount of cash to buy fertilizer in time for planting season. Marème first heard about myAgro from a friend who lives in another village. A nonprofit partner with Cisco, myAgro provides a layaway-based savings program to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. This savings program can be done entirely through their mobile phones.

A big part of the problem for smallholder farmers is that their cash flow is unpredictable. They get paid at harvest but often run out of money by the time they need to buy seeds and fertilizer for the next season. Only 7% of smallholder farmers have access to financing through traditional banks and microfinance. Most loans need to be repaid in regular installments, which is difficult for smallholder farmers, given their infrequent and unpredictable income. Finding ways to help smallholder farmers invest in themselves is one of the best ways to alleviate poverty. According to the FAO, investing in the agricultural sector is up to 3.2 times more effective  at reducing poverty in low-income and resource-rich countries than any other industry. Another important aspect is to look at the way we invest. Erin shares why alternative investment options for smallholder farmers are so crucial:

“The financial institutions that are reaching rural farming communities focus primarily on the provision of the loans, which can put the financial institutions and smallholders at risk. What is unique about myAgro is that they have designed a financial product and services around the realities and needs of the farmer. Their mobile layaway program provides farmers an easy and convenient way  to save incrementally, while also providing them technical assistance and support to ensure that they maximize their productivity and boost their income.”

This system puts the farmers in charge, offering them a layaway plan managed through their mobile phone. Instead of receiving a loan to purchase $100 for seeds and fertilizer, farmers can purchase a myAgro card and save smaller amounts over time to fund next season’s seeds. This ensures that farmers have the funds to make their seed and fertilizer purchases when it’s time to plant. Anushka Ratnayake, Founder, and CEO of myAgro explains:

“myAgro has pioneered an alternative savings system that matches how farmers already manage their money. Using a prepaid scratch card model, similar to buying prepaid mobile minutes, farmers can pay in advance for fertilizer, seed, and agricultural training packages. At myAgro, we are not asking farmers to change their behavior to match an outdated financial system, we’re changing the system to match them.”

Smallholder farmers don’t produce as much when they can’t make that initial investment to plant more. That is why giving them the ability to save money to buy seeds and fertilizer for the future will provide them with a chance at a bigger harvest. The bigger the crop, the more revenue they can bring in.

Marème decided to enroll for a package of peanut fertilizer. She made payments toward the purchase through myAgro’s mobile layaway program and myAgro delivered the fertilizer just before planting. Marème had an excellent peanut harvest and credited the fertilizer and agriculture training she received from myAgro for her success:

“I harvested five sacks of peanuts on a quarter-acre of a field, and that’s not even counting all the peanut leaves I had to feed my animals. When I first harvested, the pile of leaves at my house was so high that people from around the village came to look. On a field planted without myAgro, I would usually get only one and a half sacks of peanuts on a quarter-acre of a field.”

Marème’s harvest production increased threefold. She was especially happy with the additional peanut leaves she was able to harvest to feed her animals. Almost a year after harvesting, she is still using the leaves to feed her two sheep, two horses, and a donkey. Without these leaves, Marème would have to spend some of her family’s income on food for the animals. Now there is more money to buy clothes and books for the children. The training that myAgro provides is also essential to the success of a farmer. Through myAgro’s training, Marème learned how to use her fertilizer efficiently by placing a small amount next to each plant, rather than tossing handfuls onto the field.

Now serving over 60,000 farmers, myAgro has a goal to expand to reach one million farmers. Sid Wiesner, Chief Technology Officer at myAgro, explains how with Cisco, myAgro is using tech to scale:

“Cisco has invested in critical areas related to our technology, which have been instrumental in helping us scale to meet our goal of serving 1 million farmers by 2025. Thanks to Cisco’s support, we have made great progress in building mobile tools and training programs for our field staff using human-centered design, integrating mobile money to simplify how farmers make payments, and improved impact data visibility for our partners.”

The average myAgro farmer increases his or her harvest by 50-100% with an additional farming income per year of $150 to $300. As their yields rise, so does their farming income. By increasing their profit by $1.50 per farmer per day, they can help smallholder farmers move out of poverty. Marème was so satisfied with the services and results provided by myAgro when she first participated in 2018, that she decided to double her package size of peanut fertilizer in 2019. Her field is still growing, and the agricultural training she has received through myAgro has given Marème high hopes for future harvests.

Previously published on Cisco's Corporate Social Responsibility Blog and 3BL Media News.

Image credit: myAgro/Facebook

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