Pioneering New Technology

How Smart Phones Help Feed the World

Your phone is amazing. With just a few swipes on a screen, you can take care of pretty much anything — from ordering pizza, to finding a ride, to keeping up with family and friends (even if they live on the other side of the country — or the world). But you know what’s truly amazing? That same technology can make the difference between a successful harvest and a total loss for a smallholder farmer.

Hold Up – a What Farmer?

A smallholder farmer. That basically means anyone who farms a two hectares of land or less – which is more or less the area of two rugby fields put together (or two baseball diamonds, if that’s more your thing).

But, don’t be fooled — they might be small by name, but they’re mighty by nature. With an estimated 475 million farms of this kind across the globe, they occupy 12 percent of the world’s total farmland, living mostly in developing countries. And yet, smallholder farmers provide 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa — areas where food security is not always guaranteed. So, we’d say their work is pretty important.

Looking at those stats, it’s safe to say that smallholder farmers have a lot of responsibility on their plates. But they also face a hefty number of challenges which leave their chances of a successful harvest hanging in the balance. Consider this:

Finding Farming Know-How

For one, many smallholder farmers in developing countries don’t have access to educational resources. Instead, they depend on word of mouth and trial and error to increase their farming knowledge. If you don’t have access to formal training, it can be hard to know how and when to use certain products — such as fertilizers or crop protection. All of these elements can prevent a smallholder farmer from achieving a successful harvest. With a mobile phone and a connection, smallholder farmers can access a wealth of information in the palm of the hand. It also makes it easier to get in contact with other farmers — near or far — to share farming tips. Plus, if there’s a problem that needs treating, they can reach out to technical experts and quickly get the answers they need, regardless of distance.

Keeping Up with Alerts

It might seem obvious, but being able to check the weather forecast is vital for farmers. By receiving alerts directly on their phone, they can plan for any upcoming poor weather conditions. Similarly, farmers can now be alerted by text message when there is a disease outbreak — this system has been launched in Eastern Africa, for example, where it helps farmers protect their livestock from pests.

Managing Money

The vast majority of smallholder farmers don’t have bank accounts. This makes them reliant on cash-in-hand payments, of course, but that’s only part of the challenge. For example, without a bank account, it becomes much more complicated to put money aside into savings, or to access capital through loans. And what about the minority of smallholder farmers who do have bank accounts? Well, it doesn’t get much easier. One study in Uganda found that farmers travel 45 km (28 miles) on average to get to the bank.

Sounds pretty inconvenient, right? Well, enter the mobile phone. Mobile money platforms allow farmers to receive payments and make transactions without having to travel.

Accessing Markets

Many smallholder farmers don’t have access to the market for crops, which can mean that they are forced to sell their produce to middlemen at local markets. Also, farmers often don’t have access to current price information for their commodities. The cost? The middlemen often pay below the odds for the farmer’s produce — and the farmers are left in the dark about how they calculate these prices.

The good news? Even marketplaces can become digital! In some countries, there are SMS services which keep farmers up to date on the current prices for agricultural goods. Additionally, there are apps which allow farmers to get in contact with exporters, letting them cut out the middleman (quite literally). All this helps farmers to get a fair price for their produce.

How Can We Help Smallholder Farmers Get Connected?

Luckily, help is on hand for our smallholder farmers. Here are some important programs that are working to hook farmers up with mobile technology:

AgriFin Mobile
AgriFin Mobile serves farmers across Indonesia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Working with various partners, the program provides unified platforms and channels which offer farming tips and financial services. The end goal? To help smallholder farmers manage their operations more effectively, so that they can gain a stable income and contribute to increased food security.

Better Life Farming
Better Life Farming is a partnership between several companies (including us!) which aims to help smallholder farmers overcome the challenges mentioned above. This means that, together, we tackle the problem from a whole range of angles — looking at trainings, finance, tools, tech, crop protection and insurance.

One Acre Fund
One Acre Fund provides critical services for smallholder farmers, including financing, tools, and training. The nonprofit is pursuing a new initiative to adapt digital tools like tablets and mobile phones to make day-to-day operations more efficient. For example, One Acre Fund employees will use tablets to register farmers for programs, increasing accuracy and saving time.

It’s amazing how big a difference something so small can make. With a touch on a screen, farmers can get access to information and services that give them a helping hand over the barriers they face — which can truly change lives.