Smartphone Apps for Smallholders: What’s Really Useful?

Two years ago, partners in Zambia launched “Maano” or the Virtual Farmers Market, a smartphone application that’s supposed to link small-scale farmers with produce buyers to net farmers better prices for their crops. In Kenya, investors are trying to popularize the Haller Farmers App, a mobile tool touted as a digital library of useful agricultural information and tips for smallholder farmers. Colombian farmers are experimenting with “the Farming Solution” app that’s designed to steer them toward more sustainable farming practices. Some apps connect farmers to mobile money networks, others alert agricultural communities to forthcoming changes in the weather that could hurt their fields, giving the farmers time to prepare.

The world of smartphone apps designed to help poor smallholder farmers seems to be expanding with each passing year, but do these tools really help farmers grow more food or earn more income? We’re still in the early days of this part of the ongoing digital agriculture revolution, but experts generally say that, yes, there are good signs that smallholder farmers can improve their lives using these technologies. But careful thought and planning are needed to see these tools delivering on their promises.

Three considerations

Grow Further recently announced our first two grant recipients, a historic moment for our organization. One of our grantees is a team based at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST). Led by Dr. Neema Mduma, those researchers are developing a smartphone app to show farmers the earliest signs of spreading disease infestations in fields. Somewhat akin to alerting farmers to impending bad weather, this app would alert them to impending crop losses from diseases. That should help them to head off these threats before it’s too late.

We’re confident in Dr. Mduma’s team and their innovative idea, but we felt this was a good time to take a look at what other researchers make of smartphone apps for smallholder farmers. So far, opinions are positive, but studies into the phenomenon have revealed three key lessons for app developers like Mduma and company to consider moving forward.

First, scholars agree that smartphone applications will usher in positive and dramatic changes to the way developing world farmers grow food. “The integration of mobile applications in the agricultural sector is poised to bring transformative changes,” wrote Bangladesh-based researchers Mostafa Kamal and Tarek Aziz Bablu in the International Journal of Social Analytics. “With the ever-evolving technology landscape, these digital tools have the capacity to revolutionize how farmers operate and access crucial information.”

Kamal and Bablu’s study breaks down the emerging field of agricultural smartphone apps into five overarching categories. Ag apps available for download today either expand access to general farming information, connect farmers to markets, give smallholder farmers better access to financing options, give instructions on the optimal management of crops, or provide agricultural extension services delivered via digital means. The technology that NM-AIST is developing would fall under the category of optimal management tools. Kamal and Bablu have nothing but good things to say about all these categories of smartphone ag apps, but they caution that an app’s relative success depends on careful pre-planning. “Harnessing this potential requires collective effort and collaboration among policymakers, governments, and development organizations,” they noted.

These digital tools have the capacity to revolutionize how farmers operate and access crucial information.

In other words, this isn’t a Field of Dreams where “if you build it, they will come.” App developers have to go to where the farmers are, at least unless they want to wait the 32 years it took from the release of “Field of Dreams” to an actual Major League Baseball game being played at the movie set, by which time the smartphone may be obsolete! That’s lesson number one.

Second, a recent study out of China found that smartphone apps help empower rural women farmers. The effect mainly stems from women’s ability to access not only a vast trove of new information via smartphone ag apps but also from their enhanced ability to locate and gain temporary off-farm employment.

“Smartphone use significantly increases women’s decision-making power,” said Huazhong University of Science and Technology researcher Yuwen Zhou at a presentation she delivered at the Virtual Conference on Rural Agricultural Development in the Digital Age, hosted by the Asian Development Bank Institute. “Compared with non-users, smartphone users are more empowered in nine indicators like agriculture input decisions, agricultural daily decisions, [and] we can see that on average smartphone users are more likely to join off-farm employment and longer off-farm employment.” But it only works if women have access to these devices in the first place—in China they typically do, but in many parts of the world, smartphone users are disproportionately men.

Here is lesson number two: Smartphone apps can significantly improve gender equity. But pre-existing equity problems need to be addressed first, in particular the problem of women’s relative lack of access to smartphones in many parts of the world.

Wanted: simple applications for simple phones

Finally, experts are confident that smartphone apps can help smallholder farmers grow more food, either by teaching them tricks of the trade to help increase yields or by helping them save fields from calamities that may dramatically lower yields. Extension services delivered via smartphone apps are designed to do the former; weather alert apps or the forthcoming Tanzania disease detection app are designed to perform the latter function. However, these technologies must be relatively simple enough for the farmers to use.

One way to ensure this, experts say, is by enlisting the aid of smallholder farmers in the development process—asking them how they might best make use of such technologies and then designing them accordingly. Some scholars urge innovators to go further, developing versions of their apps that can be used on less sophisticated devices and by farmers who may not even be able to read.

Speaking at the same AIDB-hosted virtual conference, Professor Michael Kremer of the Development Innovation Lab at the University of Chicago drove this point home. Yes, smartphones are commonly found in rural smallholder communities, he agreed, but not every farmer in these communities owns iPhones, Android devices, or other multi-function smartphones. “In many countries, the majority of farmers have access to phones and at least to basic text and voice messages,” Kermer noted. “Probably making these [apps] available free of charge will improve access for low-income farmers. Another element is trying to make sure that this is available through basic phones rather than only smartphones.”

Here is perhaps a third important lesson for ag app developers: keep it simple, and your innovation should find an eager user base over time.

— Grow Further

Photo credit: A prototype of the app under development at NM-AIST. True Vision Productions.

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