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From 'pay as you go' to 'share and grow' — can mobile phones help small farmers?

Posted by Maria Michalopoulou Previously the Communications & Learning Coordinator for the Enterprise Development Programme (EDP) and the Women's Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-Care) Initiative

3rd Jan 2012

Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe. Annie Bungeroth/Oxfam

Small farmers produce 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but struggle to feed themselves. Can mobile phone technology help?

It's not a new price plan for mobile phones or even a new smartphone app. But, it is smart and it is mobile. Vodafone's recent Connected Agriculture report is all about sharing information to help smallholder farmers grow more and grow better. And ultimately helping them grow their productivity and income.

The report, co-published by Vodafone and Accenture with a foreword from Oxfam GB, suggests that mobile phone services can be used to benefit small farmers, whilst increasing efficiency and performance in the food sector in developing countries. This is something we should all care more about as, like it or not, global demand for food is in danger of outstripping supply.

The challenges facing small farmers

Up to 2 billion people worldwide are currently dependent on smallholder farming for their livelihood - that equates to around one third of all humanity. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) a staggering 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is produced by small farms. At the same time, ironically, small farmers constitute half of the world's under-nourished people. So one has to wonder: how come the people who produce our food are actually struggling to feed themselves?

All too often, small farms are not seen as an attractive investment opportunity for the global businesses that depend on them. As a result, smallholder farmers are faced with a range of challenges, such as a lack of access to markets, finance and information, and a lack of technical and mechanical support. Smallholder farmers are struggling to produce and sell, and even when they sell, too few safeguarding mechanisms are in place to guarantee they get the right, or the best, price. That leaves them and their families struggling to make ends meet.

Whose problem is it?

But the tables have turned. Small farmers' challenges are ours too, as they affect the efficiency of food production and distribution around the world. With food commodity prices surging in global markets and agricultural production severely hit by floods and droughts, the food crisis is not a regional phenomenon anymore - it is a global issue. 80 million people are born every year and the world population is expected to rise by 750 million in 2020, bringing the food demand up by 70% by 2050.

In his 2011 World Food Day message, Jacques Diouf, former Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation summed up the situation well: 

"The global food market is tight, with supply struggling to keep pace with demand and stocks are at or near historical lows."

So, can we afford to turn a blind eye?

How can technology help?

In Connected Agriculture: The role of mobile in driving efficiency and sustainability in the food and agriculture value chain Vodafone and Accenture argue there is a great opportunity to make substantial global impact by using private business practices and models in developing countries and making new technologies accessible to a wider reach of people around the globe - and not just the privileged few.

In this report 12 opportunities have been identified for improving the productivity and income of smallholder farmers - and ultimately the efficiency and performance of the wider food and agricultural value chain in developing countries. These opportunities focus on the key areas of better access to markets, information and finance. For instance, through mobile communication networks farmers could access information on:

  • New routes to potential markets

  • Prices for inputs, such as seeds or equipment

  • Current market prices for their products

  • Storm warnings and seasonal weather forecasts

  • Savings and insurance services

In other words, all that could help them organise and manage their production and investment, reducing the risks and maximising efficiency.

Oxfam welcomes this report, as it has long focused its efforts on identifying opportunities and applying programme policies and practices to support smallholder farmers in projects around the world. In Tanzania, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh we are piloting mobile communication services to share market information and weather forecasts with small farmers, and to monitor the quality of government services affecting them.

At the same time, we recognise that this report only goes part of the way in its analysis. We would like to see future research in this area expand to focus upon:

  • Government safety net systems: How mobile technology could positively impact the efficiency of such systems that support the poorest and most food insecure small farmers.

  • Gender inequity barriers: How companies such as Vodafone can better understand, document and address barriers to the use of mobile technology affecting women.

  • New inclusive agricultural practices: How mobile technology could drive new agricultural practices that include climate change adaptation approaches.

The penny has dropped… but there is still a long way to go. Mobile phones and other forms of new technology have a major role to play as enablers of sustainable development. The question is how - considering the particular context and challenges, and avoiding the "one size fits all" approach. The report's focus is a step in the right direction.

In the words of Jacques Diouf:

"Ultimately... stability in the food market depends on increased investment in agriculture, particularly in developing countries, where 98% of the hungry live and where food production needs to double by 2050 to feed growing populations."

Blog post written by Maria Michalopoulou

Previously the Communications & Learning Coordinator for the Enterprise Development Programme (EDP) and the Women's Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-Care) Initiative

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