How to make digital innovation work for smallholder farmers

On the 5th of November, Fairfood will be hosting two panel discussions during the The Only Way is Up! Conference. We already had a chat with some of the panel members and wrote down the most important outtakes – for everyone who can’t make it to the conference. Today: William Matovu, Country Director Uganda at Heifer International on how to make digital innovation work for smallholder famers.

How can we make digital innovation work for smallholder farmers? Seven lessons from William Matovu, Country Director Uganda at Heifer International. William Matovu has been working with smallholder farmers in various projects that convened agri-business and digitalization. He shares his most important learnings with us.

  1. Know which problem you address
    I see a lot of push from the supply side. There are a lot of businesses and organisations that are trying to innovate the agri-food business, coming up with apps for linkage or for sharing information. That is in contrast with the demand side. If you look at it from the smallholder farmers’ perspective, it’s clear they only want digitalization if it works for them. I’ll give you an example from the dairy farmers cooperative I work with. The dairy processing company used to pay them after a fortnight, in cash. As the nearest bank was about 40 km away, money was taken to the rural village. We tried to tell the cooperative it was dangerous to pay their fellow farmers in cash, but they couldn’t see the risk. It wasn’t until one day an amount of money got lost, that they started seeing why they would better receive the money on their mobile phones. Thus, digitization only makes sense to smallholder farmers if they see value in it, otherwise they won’t take it up.

  2. Digitalization should add revenue
    One of the biggest challenges of innovation comes from the supply side. Imagine people sitting in air-conditioned rooms in capital cities, designing apps for farmers they haven’t consulted. They think on behalf of the farmers, without understanding the context. These farmers are clever, they are entrepreneurs. Their livelihood is based on their small farms. If digitalization is not going to add revenue to their financial streams, they will never take it up. I’ve seen a number of apps and other innovations that don’t add value, so they don’t make sense to farmers. There are good examples, however. Mobile money is changing the landscape. It changes the way agri-business is taking place and in that way it changes the lives of smallholder farmers. They see it’s efficient, it gives them real time access to their money, and that it’s safe. That’s the kind of digital innovation smallholder farmers are looking for. If it doesn’t increase their revenue, they will never buy it/in.

  3. Design together with the users
    Any digital innovation has to involve the users and address the challenge they face on a day to day basis. That’s why we’ve introduced participatory product development. It helps apps to better serve the people. For instance, I’m now working with an innovation company that is designing a moisture meter (for grains) that is 40 times cheaper than the regular one. Those guys were first working on it in a lab in the US, and wanted to introduce the product on the market. I told them that would never work. So we involved farmers in the design process. They got very interesting feedback on its shape and the required functionalities. Now, the orders are already coming in before the launch of the product. The product is appreciated by the farmer.

  4. You test and improve, test and improve, test and improve
    Participatory design is not about one group meeting and then it’s done. Heifer is currently in a project that supports dairy farmer to optimize their businesses. Together we’re developing a digital platform that consists of an information management system for cooperatives, and a mobile payment system. We design, we test, we go back, we improve. So, participatory design should be really participatory, with a constant feedback loop.

  5. It’s about software and hardware
    You can design a nice app, but without the right infrastructure, it’s useless. First, your hardware needs to be in place. If there’s no internet connection, then mobile payment is no option. Same goes for electricity. If people can’t charge their phone, they can’t rely on it as a tool for their daily business. Second, You need to provide training to make people familiar with the use of it. So it’s both hardware and software we need in place for innovation to be successful in rural settings.

  6. We need the private and public sector
    Mobile phone penetration grows in Uganda 3% a year. The 4G network is already accessible in the rural areas. Airtel has been able to plant towers across all the country. So, it’s about both mobile phone connection as well as internet access. The same thing with electricity. In Uganda we have a very clear power improvement strategy for rural electrification. So, connectivity is really improving in the upcoming years. The availability of power will make the private sector eager to jump in and to connect people in the rural areas to the mobile networks. It’s also linked to education. The more education people receive, the more they will use a mobile phone and explore the potential of it.

  7. We must involve young people
    Population dynamics of Africa show that 70% classifies as ‘young’. We have to invest in their future. Without putting ICT in the forefront, it will be difficult to engage youth and really transform agriculture as a business sector and make it future-proof. Most of the young people who are now involved in agri-business use ICT for smart agriculture. Think about soil testing, trading, improving seed breeds, farm information management. Without involving youth in digitalization projects, there will be no quantum leap.

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