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September 19, 2012

Do farming tips to farmers by cellphone make a big difference?

In the last few years there have been efforts all over Africa to link the explosive growth in cell phone availability with providing various services to farmers.

The latest such effort is one in which a development organization and one of Kenya's mobile phone carriers are said to have linked up to avail up to 250,000 farmers with information by cellphone SMS, short message service.

The farmers are to benefit from 'pertinent agriculture-related information, advice and research that will help them make better decisions about their crops, increasing the productivity of their yield, as well as their potential income.'

It sounds good, and airtime spent on SMS is a huge cash cow for mobile phone operators in Africa. At a few cents a message, it is accessible to even low income people and yet very profitable for the cell phone companies.

Just how useful are these services to farmers? The article in question here has few specifics. But when these initiatives they first began, one example that was given was how remote rural farmers could now know the price in distant towns of their crops, instead of having no choice but to accept the prices offered by traveling middlemen. However, using this example, just how much extra bargaining power does this give the farmer?

In this example, the farmer's problem may not be so much ignorance of the going prices of his/her crop in the big population centers where the markets are. A bigger problem may be lack of the ability to ferry his or her crop to those centers. The choice then is a stark one, particularly for perishable commodities-accept the price being offered by the traveling trader, or watch the crop rot. Knowing that the price hundreds of kilometers away is 50% higher than that being offered by the trader who is in the village with cash is neither much comfort nor much help.

Other information that has been touted in similar initiatives includes weather forecasts, technical information (e.g. how to deal with particular pests.)

There is certainly the potential for these services to be useful, but do they work as well as hyped? They are usually begun with much fanfare  and publicity, but there seems little follow to show the results after some months or years.

This particular Kenyan project is backed by USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 

African Agriculture    

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