In a small, electronic box found in the pockets of farmers across the African continent lies the power to open up opportunities for smallholder farmers across Ghana. This is what is being proposed by the founders of Farmerline, a service that will give farmers and extension agents the ability to communicate in new ways using their mobile phones. The Farmerline platform allows extension agents to mass-message farmers by voice or SMS, allowing farmers to leave messages that can be categorized and addressed. It will potentially provide a voice-forum on which farmers from all over the country can communicate with each other. This would allow for a single message to be sent in case of a disease outbreak, or for timely information to be delivered through daily ‘tips’, such as weather reports, to a large number of farmers. Agents may be able to focus trips to the field more on demonstrations and hands-on problems, relaying other information through the mobile network.
Small holder farmers make up 60% of Ghana’s working population. They provide a large portion of the food consumed in the country, yet many struggle to make a good living. A major problem they face is accessing information about farming and about trends along other parts of the value chain, such as market prices. Extension services are one way of addressing this issue. Extension agents can bring farmers information about business planning, planting, crop treatment, farming, markets, saving, weather and even lifestyle choices like health. In Ghana extension services to subsistence and smallholder farmers are provided primarily by MofA, but are being supplemented more and more by private companies and NGOs.
For most farmers, access to information nonetheless remains a problem. They may have to wait for visits from extension agents to ask questions or learn about farming techniques, disease treatment, markets, and other relevant topics. This is a particular problem in farming where timing is very important to producing a successful crop. Information transfer is also a problem for agents, who are frequently responsible for visiting many communities of farmers with limited resources and transportation. Agents are responsible for 1000 to 2500 farmers and sometimes do not have time to address all their questions, even by mobile phone. Further, it is impossible to mass message information that needs to be communicated immediately, such as disease outbreaks or unexpected weather.
You will not find any Farmerline users quite yet – it will be another few months before the system is ready to be used. Research into the mobile usage of Ghanaian farmers is sparse, so the team is currently investing in interviews and testing with farmers and extension officers. They are, however, looking to secure funding to pilot the project in the near future!