WHAT has been giving millions of farmers in Tanzania and the rest of Africa headaches and sleepless nights -- mainly the lack of transparent information about the prices of crops for decades -- is now being asked by simple clicks on their mobile phones.
Mobile phone technologies are presenting Africa's smallholder farmers with an unprecedented opportunity to run their operations more productively and to grow their own income levels.
Private companies, up and coming information technology entrepreneurs, NGOs as well as governments are all involved in a variety of mobile phonebased products, services and applications, small software programmes that users can access on their handsets, aimed at boosting small scale agriculture. According to a document published by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), some of the first services were launched as early as 2002.
The success of these earlier services has, however, been haphazard, largely because of lower mobile penetration rates at that stage as well as a lack of a viable business plans behind many of the projects. The IST-Africa website cites that today, the mobile telephone market is one of the fastest growing sector, moreover, mobile subscriber base has been rising from 15 million people in 2009 to 20.9 million which is equal to an increase of 27.5 per cent of the mobile subscribers per year. This shows that mobile phone penetration is growing at a considerable rate.
Out of the 20.7 million mobile phone subscribers, only 4.8 million (25 per cent) of the subscriber's access and use internet with mobile internet having more users about 2.2 (45.4 per cent of the internet users) million users. Tigo Tanzania recently launched its Tigo Kilimo product for farmers, which gives weather information, market prices and agronomy tips.
A pilot project was launched in April 2012 in Morogoro Region and it is a SMS-based application which presents small-scale farmers in Tanzania to run their operations more productively and the farmers get real-time information. Tigo Special Programme Manager, Mr Yaya N'Djore said that they already had over 40,000 subscribers of the service and that though the service has yet to reach the interior of the country, there are plans already underway to do so.
"Farmers' biggest complaint revolves around market prices, they are demanding for this to be timely and readily available. We are currently working on modalities with the Ministry of Industry and Trade such that we sort this out.
Only the ministry has the mandate of issuing market prices," he said. Tigo Kilimo may be new to the ears of many people and is only currently being promoted in the Tigo Smile Tour, which is an activation caravan that plans to travel in over 10 regions where Tigo is expecting to widen its reach and strengthen its presence, there is a village in Shinyanga called Ukiriguru where there is no Tigo network coverage, but there are 200 people with Tigo SIM cards.
Ms Nyamizi Mirembe, a sweet potato grower in the village said that she has had the SIM card for a couple of months now and had obtained it specifically for the mobile farming product because it hoped that she would get some insight of new ways of growing sweet potatoes. She, however, said that because there is no Tigo coverage in her village, she is forced to travel a few hundred kilometres heading to Shinyanga where there is a reception and she has been benefiting from the service but admitted that it was proving costly for her.
Mr Kulwa Dehenga, a cotton farmer said that he is also forced to travel to neighbouring towns where there is coverage to benefit from the much needed services. "There is no doubt in anyone's mind in our village that this service will be hugely beneficial to us and therefore we humbly ask Tigo to consider setting us a tower in our village so that we can also enjoy this service," he said.
As luck would have for the farmers of Ukiriguru, Mr N'Djore answered their prayers when he recently told journalists that Tigo would be putting up a tower in that village by the end of the year as part of their investment plan where they will be launching 209 new network sites across Tanzania, which is an addition of the 1,603 towers already in existence.
Tigo Kilimo is expected to reach 500,000 farmers by December, this year, as well as make an impact assessment on the 40,000 plus subscribers that it already has in its database. There are plans to add a voice based message after the pilot project found that there were many users who were illiterate and later a helpline service. According to the "How we made it in Tanzania website," the explosion of mobile phones on the African continent and much reduced data costs, has led to the development of improved products for farmers.
One of the most successful technologies is arguably the Esoko service developed by Ghana-based BusyLab. Orginally established in 2005 as TradeNet, the company was rebranded as Esoko in 2009, operating on a new platform with a broader set of tools. In addition to providing access to market prices, farmers and traders can also place orders. Esoko has attracted investment from the International Finance Corporation, the Soros Economic Development Fund and well-known Silicon Valley Eng. Jim Forster.
Through a variety of partnership agreements, the company currently has a presence in nine countries on the continent. Many of the new applications go beyond merely providing farmers with market information. Kenya's M-Farm, developed by an all-girl team of developers, allows farmers to group together through their mobile phones to offer exporters and big retailers large quantities of crops.
Farmers connected through M-Farm can also save on the cost of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides by buying in bulk. According to the 2013 Africa agriculture status report, cited another success story, FARM-Africa, an NGO working in Kenya in conjunction with the government and other stakeholders, developed a decentralised animal health care system in its Kenya Dairy Goat and Capacity Building Project (KDGCBP).
To link key participants in the system, the project approached Safaricom Corporation, the corporate social responsibility arm of the mobile phone company Safaricom. The KDGCBP system works with a community animal health worker, who purchases a veterinary drug kit and mobile phone at a subsidised price. The project also instals community phones, which have solar panels and batteries for areas where there is no electricity at veterinary shops.
The owner of the community phone is responsible for repairs and can make a profit by charging for its use; for the private veterinarians, the phone is a means of diversifying income. Animal health assistants and veterinarians working with the project also receive mobile phones from KDGCBP.
The phone system allows animal health care providers to update one another, share information and conduct referrals. This system has reduced transaction costs and increased the efficiency of animal health care in the area.