Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Some Intriguing ICT-enabled Agriculture Services

This is the second in a series of blog posts by Judy Payne, USAID’s ICT Advisor for Agriculture, on using information and communications technologies (ICT) to enhance the reach and impact of agriculture development activities. 

In my last blog post, I provided an update on some key challenges related to the New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund. The grantees are progressing; a new one for Senegal (Concern Universal) started in April with a strong set of sub-grantees; and a competition for the country granteefor Mozambique is now underway.

Since my last post, I moderated a well-attended webinar on the USAID/Vodafone Connected Farmer Alliance which has made good progress on mobile-enabled agriculture services that leverage mobile money, appear to be viable services for mobile network operators, and provide gains to smallholder farmers as well as the agribusinesses that pay for them. (Vodafone shows continued commitment to agriculture services with a second market research report after its first one a few years ago. Other mobile network operators, including Airtel, are also strengthening their services for smallholder farmers.  More on an Airtel service below.) I also conducted a lively video interview about the Shamba Shape Up reality TV show for agriculture and how its creators plan to expand into more ICT-enabled agriculture services. 

You may have missed some good news that the USAID Global Development Lab gave a Turning Data into Action Award to USAID/Senegal’s Projet Croissance Economique (PCE, a Feed the Future activity) for its cloud-based application used by farmers to share information. The application has resulted in better prices for higher quality fertilizer, more sharing of better agricultural practices, and ultimately a 25 percent increase in maize yields. What I like best about this example is that it is “lean”, using Excel spreadsheets and basic GIS software, and that it can be used by farmers and farmer groups directly. For more on this application and others employed by PCE, see this link.

I wanted to provide a quick overview of two intriguing ICT-enabled services for agriculture, neither brand new but both worth following. This is surely not a complete description of them or of related services providers, but a few thoughts. If you have suggestions for additional examples I should highlight, please let me know. 

Interactive voice response (IVR) services have been around for several years in agriculture, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, because I figured voice services were too expensive for smallholder farmers and not much information could be conveyed in one audio clip. Also, I admit I had a bias against IVR, given I’ve heard all too often “your call is important to us” at the start of the many IVR systems used for customer service in the US. The IVR systems mentioned below go beyond simply a “tree” of messages navigated by a caller. They enable messages to be “pushed” to farmers based on profiles, offer SMS (text) options, and more. 

It turns out IVR appears to be a reasonable option in our growing array of ICT-enabled extension services with Airtel’s 321 service (managed by HNI) in Madagascar and Malawi, with 100,000s of farmers using the service. Airtel finds it worth financing (providing 8 to 10 free calls per user per month, depending on the country), given how the service has reduced subscriber churn and increased average revenue per user (ARPU), two key performance metrics for mobile network operators. Using the Voto Mobile software platform, HNI and its partners can monitor usage carefully to adjust message organization and content and to include paths (e.g., a phone number to text) for the user to receive more information on a topic. By the way, this IVR service is part of the New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund country grantee’s service in Malawi. 

IVR popped up in a big way in Ethiopia and, again, is part of the New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund country grantee’s service there. In Ethiopia, the Ministry of Agriculture had a local company develop an IVR service that quickly reached one million farmers. The Ministry and the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) are now working with the New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund country grantee (Digital Green) and its sub-grantee, Awaaz.De, an IVR service platform provider, to enhance the service. The service currently consists of "pull" static content that can be accessed one-way (menu-driven IVR call tree) and broadcasts "push" messages to farmers. It will be enhanced to include interactivity, where callers can record questions in their own voice, moderators can route to expert responders, and common questions can be accessible via a voice forum and outbound broadcasts. Where else have you seen IVR being used well?

The second application I want to highlight is e-verification of agricultural inputs – e.g., seeds, herbicides, fertilizers. No one knows exactly how big this problem is but knowledgeable estimates are that from 30 to 67 percent of all such inputs are counterfeit in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that all too often poor smallholder farmers use precious assets to buy inputs only to gain no benefits or, worse, damage their crops. No wonder trust of input supply systems is so low. USAID/Uganda was involved in a small, successful pilot a few years ago that demonstrated that farmers would pay a premium for inputs they knew were authentic, and manufacturers could also increase sales. Now the mission is working in its Feed the Future portfolio to pilot a scalable e-verification service that will be a public-private partnership. IFPRI will evaluate the impact. I am following this closely!