From Farm to Phone to Table: A Case Study Series Explores the Impact of Digital Tools on Agriculture

This post is excerpted from a monthly theme series from NextBillion focusing on agriculture during the month of September. It was authored by Cristina Manfre, senior associate with Cultural Practice LLC, and Christopher Burns, senior coordinator, digital development for Feed the Future at USAID.

Over the past 10 years, and particularly over the past five, the use of mobile phones and internet-enabled, digital tools in farming activities has skyrocketed. Today, the smartphone or tablet is no longer seen just in the developed world; at least one mobile phone now sits in the pockets or hands of over 60 percent of the population in the developing world. Coupled with the increased spread of 3G and 4G connectivity, and the growing presence of mobile money products, low-cost sensors, geospatial visualization and machine learning, what has emerged is a broad set of digitally based applications that have driven greater financial inclusion, more precision agriculture, better data collection and analytics, and more effective information dissemination. Agricultural organizations are increasingly embracing these tools to better provide for the welfare of the communities they serve.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, through the U.S. Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security, is working to demonstrate that digital tools and approaches can improve cost-effectiveness and better development outcomes in food security and nutrition programs. As part of this effort, USAID is launching a case study series to highlight different approaches to digital tool adoption and how these tools are impacting organizational culture, operations and programming.

The series profiles different organizations, from social enterprises to non-governmental organizations and traditional private businesses across a number of regions, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to South and Southeast Asia. Greater attention is being given to Feed the Future (the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative) countries and the newly released target countries under the Global Food Security Strategy. Most organizations and projects being showcased have received some form of USAID assistance.

Read the full blog here and learn how digital tools are being used to enhance development outcomes in food security & nutrition programs.  


Photo Credit: Morgana Wingard for USAID

 

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Digital Development for Feed the Future: Will Digital Technology Work For or Against Small Farmers?

This post is excerpted from the second blog post in a two-part Agrilinks series focusing on data-driven agricultural development. It was authored by Brian King, Digital Development Advisor for Digital Development for Feed the Future, USAID and Peter Richards, Economic Advisor, Bureau for Food Security, USAID.

Global agricultural development is in a period of digital transition. Advancements in earth science, computational power, geospatial analysis and data communications systems have made it possible to assess yields from space, predict and manage economic or climatic shocks, and improve the precision and profitability of agricultural production. The models for realizing the full benefits of this transformation are still emerging. This has wide-reaching implications for agriculture development. Will digital technologies follow well-worn paths of agriculture innovation? Will they prove disruptive or beneficial for small farmers in developing economies?

The Technology Treadmill

Over fifty years ago, the economist Willard Cochrane described adoption of agricultural innovations as a “treadmill,” wherein technologies such as mechanization, hybrid seeds and chemical inputs helped increase productivity. However, when the resulting increases in food supply drove down market prices, farmers were forced to keep adopting new technologies to increase efficiency, only to maintain about the same farm income. Most farmers — particularly small farmers — weren’t getting ahead. When Cochrane wrote of the treadmill decades later in the 1990s, he found that his treadmill had been a force for farm consolidation. Many of the smaller, less productive or less efficient farmers ended up falling off the treadmill.

Small Farmers, Digital Tools

As use of digital tools expands in farming systems in developing economies, it is worth reflecting on what these new technologies will mean for small farmers. If the spread of these innovations follows similar patterns as those of previous waves, it could mean yet another challenge to small farmers’ livelihoods. Yet there are a few signals that digital solutions might also help small farmers even the score.

Here are some key indicators:

Increasing Access to Inputs

Access to the right inputs at the right places and times has long been a challenge for small farmers in developing regions who may find themselves isolated due to poor quality infrastructure or weak linkages with input supply chains. Even where inputs are accessible, distributing them in small packages implies additional costs. Digital tools, however, can help aggregate smallholder demand and enable innovative approaches to financing to get around these constraints. Similarly, some models from the sharing economy are showing promise for improving access to on-demand transport and mechanization.

Precision in Production

New digital tools can have a big impact on small farmer efficiency. For example, access to cell phones enables even poor, rural farmers to access good guidance over interactive voice response or low-cost video, with demonstrated improvements in production. There are early successes in improving the timeliness and site-specificity of farm guidance over digital channels, such as linking SMS text messages with crop models. The near ubiquity of mobile phone services in developing economies makes it possible to deploy sensor technologies for more precise, data-driven production. These new digital channels are building true interactivity with small farmers in ways that were not possible just a few years ago, enabling farmers and farm advisors to track crop progress, plan activities and identify new solutions or opportunities.

Read the full blog here and learn about finding a vent for surplus for smallholders, and hacking the technology treadmill.


Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security and is focused on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.  

For more information on Digital Development for Feed the Future’s work on data-driven agricultural development, please read the Key Findings Report from the Innovation for Data-Driven Agriculture convening in April 2017. 

Photo credit: Bobby Neptune for USAID

Digital Development for Feed the Future: Building an Innovative Community of Practice to Respond to Smallholder Farmers’ Needs

This post is excerpted from the first blog post in a two-part Agrilinks series focusing on data-driven agricultural development. It was authored by Karina Lundahl, Facilitator for USAID’s Innovation for Data-Driven Agriculture Convening on April 27–28, 2017.

With the continued global proliferation of smartphones, sensors and advanced analytics, opportunities and challenges relevant to smallholder agriculture in emerging economies are increasing. In the focus countries of the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative, smartphone adoption increased an incredible 800 percent between 2010–2015 according to data from GSMA Intelligence. And in 2017, the combined processing power of global smartphones will surpass the processing capacity of all servers worldwide. To create an agile and informed response to technological opportunities addressing the context-specific problems faced in developing regions, a diverse group of thinkers and innovators is required.

Addressing this, USAID, in collaboration with the Sustainability Innovation Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder (SILC), hosted its second convening focused on building a cross-industry community of practice in data-driven agricultural development. Representatives from the U.S. Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security at USAID joined a group of researchers, tech innovators, funders and development practitioners to discuss the state of the industry as well as paths forward for data-driven approaches to agricultural development. Through a series of presentations, panels and workshop activities, three major themes emerged:

1. Opportunities and challenges in the data landscape: collection, analysis, open sharing and distribution

2. How to better incorporate smallholder farmer concerns during design and implementation

3. Engaging a diverse community of practice

Convening facilitator Karina Lundahl unpacks these themes with proven examples in the full Agrilinks blog. Read the post to see case examples of how these themes respond to smallholder farmers’ needs.

Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security and is focused on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.  

For more information on Digital Development for Feed the Future’s work on data-driven agricultural development, please read the Key Findings Report from the Innovation for Data-Driven Agriculture convening in April 2017. 

Photo credit: Tanya Martineau, Prospect Arts, Food for the Hungry

Mobile Money Solves Risky Cash and Lack of Loans for Farmers in Ghana: New Video

This is the last of a three-week blog series on digital financial services for agriculture. This series showcases mSTAR and the Digital Development for Feed the Future team’s recently released interactive online resource and instructional videos, made to complement The Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. The online resource breaks down the steps of how to use digital financial services in agriculture. To view the other blogs, visit the home page of our blog.


Like in many developing countries, agriculture is the mainstay of the Ghanaian economy. 62 percent of Ghanaians are employed in the sector, says Doris Amponsaa Owusu, Business Services Specialist for USAID’s ADVANCE II Project (Agricultural Development and Value Chain Enhancement). ADVANCE II, implemented by ACDI/VOCA, supports the scaling up of agricultural investments to improve the competitiveness of important value chains in Ghana, and is supported by Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global huger and food security initiative.

In Ghana, buyers drive from the south to buy food from the rural, agricultural north. But due to a lack of banks in the north, buyers must carry huge sums of money as they travel across the country. Dealing with this amount of cash is risky and cumbersome for buyers and farmers alike.

Doris explains how her ADVANCE II team sat down to think about how they could eliminate the risk of carrying large amounts of cash. Mobile money provided a perfect solution: it diminishes the threat of theft and ensures buyers are able to pay farmers efficiently and smoothly. Plus, mobile money is simple to use and offers the ability to access additional financial services such as savings, insurance, and credit.

To implement the mobile money solution, ADVANCE II partnered with MTN, one of the largest mobile network providers in Ghana. MTN piloted the mobile banking service with a farm in northern Ghana. They first trained a group of nucleus farmers, farmers who contract and provide support to smallholder farmers, in the mobile money service. After being trained by ADVANCE II, the nucleus farmers subsequently trained 1,072 smallholder farmers. Farmers enjoyed the service Doris says, and approached ADVANCE II asking to scale up the project. So ADVANCE II trained input dealers and out grower businesses.

After success with the farmers, out growers, and input dealers, ADVANCE II saw more benefits mobile money could offer. The farming communities Doris and her team work with have savings and loan associations, where each farmer contributes weekly towards production for the next season. “The women still have to keep these moneys in metal boxes kept under the beds,” says Doris. So her team partnered with MTN and Fidelity, a banking firm, to digitize the savings and loan associations.

ADVANCE II and the farmers they work with are excited about the results of mobile money, and plan to scale up the program to 10,000 smallholder farmers. “I would recommend it to any project that would want to implement mobile money or digital finance as part of their project approach,” says Francis Ussuman, Regional Coordinator on the ADVANCE II team.

In the video below, Doris, Francis, and local farmers show how ADVANCE II implemented mobile money in Ghana and impacted the agricultural sector.

As the video shows, digital financial services have the potential to strengthen Feed the Future projects around the globe. USAID is here to help missions and partners identify specific challenges in value chains and integrate digital financial services into those corresponding challenges.

To learn more about how to implement digital financial services in Feed the Future projects, read the Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. If you have specific questions or feedback, contact digitaldevelopment@usaid.gov

Mobile Money Helps Farmers Grow Their Businesses in Bangladesh

This is the first of a three-week blog series on digital financial services for agriculture. This series showcases mSTAR and the Digital Development for Feed the Future team’s recently released interactive online resource and instructional videos, made to complement The Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. The online resource breaks down the steps of how to use digital financial services in agriculture.


Mobile money can transform the reach and success of a USAID project.

By offering a secure way to store money and access financial services, mobile money has the potential to increase the efficiency of programs and significantly improve the resilience of smallholder farmers.

Carrying cash in the field can be precarious for development workers and beneficiaries alike, as many USAID missions and partners know. In Bangladesh, “there is a security risk and safety risk,” says a representative from WorldFish, a non-profit that works with Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Cash can be lost, or worse, stolen. But until recently, cash was the only form of payment—it’s how farmers paid for agricultural inputs and how buyers paid for agricultural products. “There was no other channel,” explains Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Finance Advisor at FHI 360.

Mobile money has emerged as an obvious solution to the risk of carrying cash. While access to banks is limited for rural agricultural communities, access to mobile phones is not. In June 2016, for example, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission reported 131.4 million mobile phone subscriptions in Bangladesh. This makes up around 83% of Bangladesh’s population. With this, mobile money has seen massive growth in Bangladesh. It has “opened an opportunity to eliminate or vastly reduce the amount of cash transactions,” Josh says.

Josh leads the Bangladesh office for the FHI 360-led and USAID-funded Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project (mSTAR).  In addition to reducing the risk of staff carrying cash, USAID and mSTAR saw the impact mobile money could have in achieving the goals of USAID agricultural programs in the country. To start, mSTAR assessed where and how mobile money could be applied in project value chains. They conducted value chain studies and provided technical assistance, training staff and building capacity.

“Since mSTAR started activities in Bangladesh in September 2013,” Josh says, “we have been able to work with USAID to digitize payments for 10 Feed the Future activities.” Farmers now have access to financial products, many for the first time. Without money stolen or lost, and with the ability to store and manage money, farmers can reinvest more in their farms, in turn increasing the amount of food they can produce, and their profits. All this leads to stronger, and safer, communities.

Watch the video below to see how USAID and mSTAR implemented mobile money in Bangladesh and worked with implementing partners to successfully impact beneficiary farmers.

As the Bangladesh example shows, digital financial services have the potential to strengthen Feed the Future projects around the globe. USAID is here to help missions and partners identify specific challenges in value chains and integrate digital financial services into those corresponding challenges.

To learn more about how to implement digital financial services in Feed the Future projects, walk through the steps of the online Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. If you have specific questions or feedback, contact digitaldevelopment@usaid.gov

How the Malawi Mobile Money Project Transformed Financial Inclusion in Malawi

In 2012, there were 200,000 mobile wallets in Malawi.

Today, that number has grown to more than 2.5 million. Not only has the number of mobile wallets skyrocketed in Malawi, but a Mobile Money Coordinating Group has been incorporated into the government’s National Payments Council, and there have been inroads to digitizing payment streams within the Malawian government and agricultural value chains.

These substantial advances in digital finance were driven by the Feed the Future Malawi Mobile Money Project. The four-year long project, which started in 2012 and is ending this year, supports the growth of mobile money in Malawi through a series of interventions including pilots and technical assistance to public and private sector stakeholders. The project’s ultimate goal is to boost financial inclusion in Malawi.

To mark the coming end of the project and highlight its achievements, mSTAR invited Chief of Party, Kilyelyani Kanjo, to speak to an audience of digital finance experts and USAID staff in Washington, DC.

“When we started the project,” Kilyelyani explained to the audience, “no one wanted to touch mobile money.” Throughout the first two years, the project faced overwhelming challenges. Kilyelyani had come from the private sector where she was accustomed to seeing faster results. It was hard for her to accept the slow pace of development, but, she said, these challenges forced her and her team “to go back to the drawing board” and re-think their tactics. They realized they had to “give people a reason to believe in mobile money.” To do this, they had to think creatively.

Kilyelyani and her team began to innovate ways to advance mobile money. For example, the team found that mobile network operators (MNOs) did not talk to each other, even though they, and their constituents, would benefit from collaboration and shared resources. To solve this the team supported the Mobile Money Coordinating Group which brought the government, MNOs, and other key stakeholders together in one room. “The MNOs started talking,” Carrie Hasselback, Technical Advisor to the project says, “and now share cell towers.” By sharing cell towers, they’re able to deliver services to a wider number of Malawians.

The team looked for innovative solutions for other challenges as well, including how to support the government in digitizing government to person payments. Through a decentralized payment process, the team was able to digitize “Chief Honorarium” payments in select pilot districts. Not only did the chiefs welcome the innovation, but the team also came to realize that the village chiefs held sway over villagers. As the chiefs started to realize the value of mobile money, villagers followed their example.

Today, the country is transformed. Mobile money is accepted nearly everywhere throughout the capital of Lilongwe, even small kiosks. “I pay everything with mobile money,” Kilyelyani says, “even a sandwich at the local shop.” The project has trained nearly 10,000 people in digital and financial literacy, conducted 9 pilots with various entities to digitize payments, and held 31 road shows and 11 community mobilization meetings. “The number of mobile money transactions per quarter increased in Malawi from 582,000 in 2013 to 23 million today,” Kilyelyani says. The project has successfully reached its primary objectives of testing models for increasing mobile money adoption, increasing financial inclusion, and enhancing product development and service delivery.

With the project ending, Kilyelyani still has plans for mobile money in Malawi. “Interoperability is where we need to get to,” she says. “It just makes sense. Without it, we are operating in silos.” The project has set a stable foundation to achieve interoperability and take mobile money to the next level in Malawi.

Click here to read more about Feed the Future Malawi Mobile Money Project and here to read its results.

‘The First of Its Kind’ – mSTAR/Bangladesh & Partners Launch a New Mobile Banking Service

In Bangladesh, smallholder farmers have traditionally had a difficult time securing loans from banks. The due diligence process is rigorous in Bangladesh and high loan interest rates can be prohibitively expensive for smallholder farmers. Moreover, commercial banks are often located in urban centers, making them challenging for rural farmers to reach.

To remove these barriers to financial inclusion that farmers face, mSTAR in Bangladesh is launching an innovative pilot program with IFIC Bank Limited and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Under the pilot, IFIC Bank Limited is offering 100 farmers one of their newest products, IFIC Amar Account, a unique transactional account where both deposit and loan facilities are bundled into a single account.

bangladeshpilot2

100 Bangladeshi farmers are piloting the service.

The service has a wide-range of benefits for farmers. It enables them to enroll into flexible savings schemes and save BDT 100 per month at an annual interest rate of 7.5%. Farmers will be able to purchase inputs from participating retailers, and they’ll have access to secure agricultural loans at a low interest rate with flexible repayment options. This flexible repayment scheme is critical for farmers says Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Finance Advisor and lead of mSTAR/Bangladesh. Currently, he says, “microfinance loans offered to farmers must be paid back on a weekly basis for around 46 weeks.” Paying the loan back so regularly can be difficult for farmers who do not have a steady weekly income: once crops are in the ground, it may be a few months before they have income. This causes a snowball effect. To pay back the original loan, farmers are often forced to “take out other loans…and rush to sell their crops immediately after harvest.” Rushing to sell their crops means they often don’t get their full market value.

However, this new service will relieve those pressures. With the flexible repayment scheme, farmers will pay back the loan in a single payment after six months. Since it will be after harvest, Josh explains, it will likely enable farmers to sell their produce at a higher rate as they are not in a rush to sell. And, there’s one more perk – perhaps most importantly, farmers will operate the account through the IFIC Mobile Banking system. In many respects, this innovative service is the first of its kind in Bangladesh.

mSTAR/Bangladesh held an event last week to launch the new service. Senior staff of Bangladesh Bank, IFIC Bank, and Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice Value Chain Project attended the event to explain the new product. Mr. Mohammad Robiul Islam, General Manager of Bangladesh Bank described the service as “a significant improvement over standard microfinancing.” He explained: the low transaction costs of the mobile phone system mean the bank can offer “unbanked farmers interest rates of 10%, which is much lower than those offered by traditional microfinance institutes.” The 100 registered farmers are being provided agricultural loans worth BDT 5,000 to BDT 20,000.

IFIC Bank made it clear at the event that they were not only aware of the financial inclusion challenges smallholder farmers faced, but prepared to take on those challenges. As “an urban-based commercial bank, rural penetration is always a concern of the bank,” Shah Md. Moinuddin, Deputy Managing Director of IFIC Bank acknowledged. “The vision of IFIC Bank,” he continued, “is to overcome all the hurdles.” This project was the first step, he said.

mSTAR, IFIC Bank, and IRRI have high hopes for the service. IFIC Bank hopes to extend it to more smallholder farmers, and IRRI and mSTAR plan to bring other value chain actors, such as input dealers, companies, millers and wholesalers into the system and ensure that all actors can benefit from the digitization of payments along the value chain.

To learn more about mSTAR, contact mSTAR_Project@FHI360.org.