Information technology has greatly benefited the agriculture sector. You’ve probably read multiple articles that say ‘mobile phones empower farmers,’ but I wanted to ask the farmers themselves. Last year, I conducted a research on how rural farmers in Tanzania were using Tigo Kilimo. To learn why farmers were using this SMS based agricultural service, I spoke to 10 farmers who use the service and 5 farmers who did not.

How does Tigo Kilimo work?
Tigo, one of the most popular mobile network operators in Tanzania, launched their mAgri service Tigo Kilimo in April 2012. Tigo Kilimo is an SMS-based value added service that provides information about weather, crop prices, and agronomy techniques to small-scale farmers. By October 2013, Tigo Kilimo already had over 40,000 subscribers. Users access the service by dialing *148*14#. After completing registration, which is free, one can consult a USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) menu and select the desired information. An SMS containing the required information is subsequently sent to the customer. Tigo now offers free and unlimited access to all kinds of agricultural information to its customers.Tigo Kilimo demo

So, why are farmers in Tanzania using Tigo Kilimo?

1. Access to information increases productivity
Access to relevant and up-to-date information is crucial for farmers to plan farming activities and to choose which kind of crops to grow. Respondents requested information via Tigo Kilimo in particular during the cropping season. Short and long term information on weather is one of the most important information in the producing stage. Farmers risk loss without appropriate weather predictions, for example, when seeding too early or choosing unsuitable crops. Combining weather information and agronomy advice provided by Tigo Kilimo enabled farmers to increase their overall productivity.

2. Improves the welfare of farmers and their families
Farmers limit their revenue when selling their crops to middlemen and customers without timely market price information. The use of Tigo Kilimo has reduced the cost of market price research: farmers obtain prices for different crops in different markets and can strategically decide what to grow and where to sell. Market prices received through Tigo Kilimo serve as a point of reference for negotiating. Farmers are still willing to bargain with buyers but cannot be fooled by customers or middlemen.

Generated surpluses were saved or used for family issues and household needs, thereby increasing security and stability towards unpredictable external events. Additional income was invested in education as well as in the expansion of economic activities.

3. Empowers female farmers
Female respondents stated that Tigo Kilimo helped them to gain not only financial independence but also knowledge acquisition. Since most agricultural information and extension services are targeted at male farmers, women happen to lack valuable agricultural information. Domestic workload reduces the time to research the required information. Tigo Kilimo allows women to request and read agricultural information whenever and wherever they want. However, it is important to remember that the effective use of Tigo Kilimo requires regular access to a mobile phone, which is less likely among women.

4. The benefit extends to the community
All of the farmers I spoke to stated that they shared information obtained through Tigo Kilimo with others in the community. The acquired knowledge is shared with community members such as neighbors, family members and friends who cannot access Tigo Kilimo due to lack of education or income. Information is discussed during group meetings, which encourages knowledge exchange. Tigo Kilimo can improve the social capital of a community since additional knowledge is transmitted by “infomediaries” to community members without access to it. Tigo Kilimo users also promote the service among their social network, convincing non-users to subscribe to the service.

Tigo Kilimo marketing

What are farmers’ suggestions for mAgri services like Tigo Kilimo?

  • Include farmers in the design process: Including farmers in the designing process of mAgri services would help to identify farmers’ needs. The indigenous knowledge from farmers into the service would help to better serve the community by providing information on the relevant crops.
  • Simplify the subscription process: Some of the farmers had heard about Tigo Kilimo but didn’t use it because they failed to subscribe. If the subscription process was simpler, they would also benefit from the service.
  • Expand their marketing to rural areas: Some of the farmers had never heard of services like Tigo Kilimo. By advertising their services to more farmers, Tigo Kilimo could really benefit more farmers.

While Tigo Kilimo’s reach may be restrained by hurdles like poor road infrastructure, the unavailability of farming inputs, lack of access to mobile devices, its benefits are undeniable. Tigo Kilimo has provided many farmers with relevant and up to date agricultural information, positively influencing their agility, security, and income.

What has your experience been with mAgri services? Do you know of other mAgri services that are benefiting farming communities? Tweet at us @TechChange or comment below.

Interested in learning about other ways mobile phones are being used in international development? Sign up for our Mobiles for International Development course that begins early next year!

About author

sophie stolle headshot

Sophie is an alumna of TechChange’s Mobiles for International Development course. She is an Entrepreneur in Residence in the field of product management for a Berlin internet startup. Sophie arrived in the Berlin startup scene three years ago and is very passionate about business solutions that make the world a better place. She loves Kiswahili and has been staying in Kenya and Tanzania for more one year where she is exploring the local (social) startup scene there. She has been working as product manager for an e-commerce company in Berlin. Sophie is about to get her Bachelors’ degree in African Studies and Economics with a thesis focusing on the impact of a mobile-based agricultural information service on rural livelihoods in Tanzania.

Photo credit: myAgro

The current financial model of banks cannot address what development experts call the “triple whammy” of poor peoples’ lives – they struggle with low savings, uncertainty of cash flows, and the inability to access formal financial instruments. Small farm holders in the developing world face similar struggles as they often have to purchase seeds and fertilizers in one large payment to improve their harvest. MyAgro, provides an innovative alternative to farmers, eliminating the need for banks and placing financial decision-making in the hands of small farm holders.

MyAgro helps farmers purchase agricultural tools on layaway via an SMS platform and a network of local vendors. Anushka Ratnayake started myAgro in 2011 as a pilot program in Mali and soon expanded it to Senegal. MyAgro’s success can be attributed to their approach of using a mobile phone platform to adapt current pro-poor financial methods to addressing the financing problem in the agricultural sector.

How does myAgro work?
MyAgro works much like someone going to top up their phone for additional talk time at their local store. Participating farmers purchase scratch-off cards (ranging from $.50 to $10) with a unique pin number. This pin number is sent to myAgro and is recorded in their database under the farmer’s profile. An SMS is sent back to the farmer notifying them of how much they have saved towards their goal (to purchase fertilizer, seeds, or agricultural training). Once this amount is reached, the farmer receives the tools or service they have purchased from myAgro.

Why does myAgro’s model work?
MyAgro’s model gives rural farmers access to key financial services including cash-flow management and savings, through this approach:

  1. Reliability
    Without the credit and collateral that banks require when opening a savings account, poor people have responded by forming rotating savings and credit funds (ROSCAs) within their communities. This has been replicated worldwide, helping families manage scarcities. However, this informal tool does not provide the accountability, reliability and privacy that banks would offer. MyAgro builds on the success of ROSCAs, where people save through small incremental amounts over the long-term, but with the security and reliability of a formal mobile platform.
  2. Convenience
    MyAgro clients don’t have to travel long distances to access banks, which is especially useful for rural farmers living in remote areas where bank branches do not exist. MyAgro also increases inclusion by making the system easy to use, especially for those who are illiterate. Getting the basic use out of myAgro only requires the farmer to SMS the numbers located on the card they purchased. In addition, no physical cash is involved. In mobile cash transfer platforms such as the successful M-PESA program, some local vendors run out of cash when a customer wants to conduct a transaction, myAgro only relies on digital transactions – a successful approach within cash-strapped countries.
  3. Flexibility
    By allowing farmers to choose how much to save on a given day, myAgro takes into account the variety of shocks that vulnerable populations experience, such as illness in the family or natural disasters. The mobile platform allows them to use their small-scale savings for large-scale purchases.

In just three years, myAgro has managed to address a debilitating financial problem in farming communities in the developing world by providing a reliable and accessible savings tool and allowing farmers to managing their cash flows on their own terms. I look forward to seeing how myAgro expands its current 6,000 farmer membership while also collaborating with other mobile technology platforms to continue providing information and financial services to the benefit of the poor.

Interested in learning more about other ways mobile phones are empowering people in the developing world? Join us in our upcoming course, Mobile for International Development that begins on May 11.

About author 

Ana Tamargo

Ana Tamargo is a development professional and recent graduate from the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She recently received a master’s degree in International Development Studies. During this time, Ana completed TechChange’s “Mobile Phones for International Development” course in order to advance her knowledge in using innovative information and communication technologies to facilitate programming and data collection within the local context. She has worked at international NGOs such as Pact, World Cocoa Foundation, and the Rainforest Alliance and has expertise in program advancement, evaluation and research in the fields of sustainable natural resource management, rural poverty alleviation, and bottom-up development. Ana is eager to continue findings ways to incorporate mobile phone technology in helpingempower and provide services to vulnerable populations.