15 January 2013

Uganda: New Mobile Service Could Boost Farming

A new information platform for farmers could boost food productivity and improve sales in the agricultural sector where at least three out of four Ugandans depend for a living.

According to Mercy Corps, the financiers behind the $3m AgriFin Mobile project in Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Uganda, smallholder farmers would raise their productivity as much as their commercial counterparts once they have the same access to information.

The three-year pilot project hopes to "bundle" all the necessary agricultural production and financial information on SMS based platforms to empower rural-based small farmers. In Uganda's case, the platform is known as Agrilife. It is powered by Kenya's mobile applications developer, Mobipay.

"Access to mobile phone networks is growing dramatically in rural areas of developing countries. We want to use the phone as a powerful channel of communication to access vital and up-to-date market and financial services information," says Leesa Shrader, the senior director of Financial Innovations at Mercy Corps.

Given the reluctance among financial institutions to lend to the agriculture sector, this information platform could go a long way in reducing the risk involved in agricultural financing. Stephen Musoke, the AgriFin Mobile programme coordinator in Uganda, says Agrilife will provide financing institutions with such vital information as farmers' financial and supply chain data and their production capabilities.

"This is just the first step. Now we need to get the farmers and other relationships onboard, including the input dealers. We need to gain access to their production relationships to make the farmer the boss," he says.

In Uganda, the programme focuses on farmers growing matooke, maize and beans in the western, central and northern regions. Maize was chosen because it offers a strong backbone to Uganda's food security and is popular in the regional markets of South Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic (CAR) and Kenya. Beans are on the list because at least three out of four farmers grow beans.

Matooke made the cut because of its strong domestic value to Uganda. While the rest of Africa consumes just about 21kg of matooke per capita per year, Uganda consumes 191kg per capita per year - the highest in the world, according to International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Other research also noted significant declines in matooke production by over 78% between 1996 and 2006. Agrilife hopes to revive the production figures.

Can it work?

Mercy Corps says their research indicates that 50% of farmers attained at least primary education. And 90% of these own or have access to a mobile phone and thus should be able to send and retrieve mobile phone messages. It is not yet clear whether the text messages will be sent translated into various local languages.

Musoke, the AgriFin programme coordinator, says: "Essentially the service brings out the farmers' capacity to produce based on current and up-to-date information, which makes them better able to access affordable credit to expand their businesses, boost their income and provide for their families wherever they are. It gives them freedom to make the best choices for their own interests."

A report by Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) - Assessment of agricultural information needs in African, Caribbean & Pacific (ACP) states of 2008 notes "Though [organisations] have developed networks for sharing information, they still have a wide range of unmet information needs, implying that these linkages are not fully utilised or do not fully meet the needs of the [users]."

Priority information needs range from technical information for addressing farm problems, post-harvest technology, environmental education, integrated pest management, crop varieties, application of ICT to agricultural education, grading systems and waste utilisation.

But even with the most updated information systems, some experts argue that what the farmer needs is the right infrastructure to transport their goods to the market, access to farming inputs like insecticides and improved crop varieties.

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