Worldwatch Institute (Washington, DC)

Africa: What Works - Using Technology to Give Farmers Better Information

press release

For a farmer good information is time sensitive. Good information must move quickly and freely to reach those who rely on it when they make decisions. Digital technologies have revolutionized the way information travels worldwide, and the increasing availability of the mobile phone in particular is allowing better information to reach greater numbers of people than ever before. Several innovative programs are demonstrating the immense impact that simplest asset - timely and accurate information - can have on farmer's livelihoods.

The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was founded in 2008 to be a clearinghouse for the country's agricultural commodities. Comprised of a central trading floor in the capital, Addis Ababa, and regional warehouses across the country, the ECX is able to provide farmers with up-to-the-minute price information. Trades are conducted and recorded digitally, allowing instantaneous communication of prices. When a farmer delivers a harvest to the ECX's warehouses they know they are getting the right price for it. Additionally, the ECX's modern facilities help minimize post-harvest losses from rotting. The ECX and its founder, Eleni Gabre-Madhin, were featured in a PBS documentary following the initial days of the exchange's life.

While the ECX is streamlining the market, in Kenya techies have been developing mobile applications to help farmers manage their land and animals. They are building on the success and popularity of the mobile banking application M-PESA, a service that allows anyone with a cell phone to transfer money domestically. The best known of these is iCow, an application that helps farmers manage their herds. The application allows farmers to register their cows, allowing them to receive individualized messages reminding them of their cow's gestation and feeding schedules. It sends updated market prices and best practices advice, and keeps a database of experts for consultation.

In Turkey, the Agricultural Directorate is utilizing the ubiquity of cell phones to distribute critical pest and weather information to farmers. Utilizing data gleaned from meteorological stations around the country, the Directorate sends text message alerts to farmers before peak pest season and before an oncoming frost. This has allowed farmer's to reduce the number of pesticides applied each year, and to take preventative measures to protect their crops from frost.

These projects are benefiting farmers by providing them with the information they need, when they need it. They are taking technology and developing innovative ways to adapt it to their environment. There is a tremendous potential for more programs, more applications, more initiatives to transform the way smallholder farmers live. With better information farmers can make better decisions.

Jeffrey Lamoureux is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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