From Farm to Fork: How Technology Can Help Lift Smallholder Farmers Out of Poverty
The world produces enough food to feed every individual, yet almost 690 million people continue to go hungry. The irony is that many of those who are undernourished spend their days growing food for others. Smallholder farmers, who cultivate less than 5 acres of land, constitute a large portion of the world’s poor living on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank estimates. This is despite the fact that they create livelihoods for more than 2 billion people worldwide and produce about 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
The United Nations reports that supporting these farmers is one of the quickest ways to lift over 1 billion people out of poverty. The task, however, isn’t easy. “Two decades of underinvestment in agriculture, growing competition for land and water, rising fuel and fertilizer prices, and climate change have left smallholders less able to escape poverty,” Achim Steiner, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, said in a statement on the subject. The U.N. World Food Program also counts limited access to financing and inputs like seeds and fertilizers among the biggest challenges smallholders face.
Tech innovations can help close the inequality gap for smallholder farmers
One innovative solution that has reached 90,000 farmers in Mali, Senegal and Tanzania is called myAgro. Founded a decade ago, myAgro provides a host of services for smallholder farmers — including a mobile layaway program that enables farmers to pay for seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs little by little throughout the year.
myAgro’s simple solution addresses a key barrier that keeps smallholder farmers in poverty: lack of access to financial services. Farmers’ primary expenses — seeds and fertilizers — must be purchased in bulk at prices upwards of $100. Since their income varies seasonally, they often don’t have the cash to invest in seeds and fertilizers when planting time comes. Many live far away from banks, which makes saving even more difficult. The result is poor productivity and low yields, keeping smallholder farmers in a cycle of poverty.
Through myAgro’s platform, farmers can purchase scratch cards for as little as $1 from local convenience stores when they have a bit of cash on hand. The shopkeeper enters a code into his or her mobile phone to register the investments in the farmer's account, which is used to pay for seeds and fertilizers when the planting season comes.
The model is familiar to farmers and functions much like prepaid phone scratch cards, which are already sold in convenience stores in rural villages around the world. There are no loans involved, no interest rates, and no need to pay anything back.
“We’re using the farmers’ money when it's available to them in the season,” explained Sid Wiesner, chief technology officer for myAgro. “They're basically using their own money to fund something that happens later at a tough time of the year.”
For farmers like Awa Camara from Bancoumana, Mali, it makes all the difference. “Agriculture is our main activity, so it’s important for us — especially women — to have good harvests so we can meet our families’ needs,” she said. “I really appreciate the little-by-little payments, because us women especially have many expenses, like buying food to feed our families … Now, we always have quality inputs in time for planting and bigger harvests.”
myAgro also provides training for all farmers who use its mobile investment platform to share harvest-improving agricultural techniques tailored to specific regions and crops. Farmers including Mareme Sakho from Senegal report more than quadrupling their yields since they began using myAgro.
Strengthening a proven system with tech partnerships
Key to an organization continuing to thrive and scale is understanding that it can’t do everything alone, Wiesner said. myAgro partners with governments, NGOs such as Catholic Relief Services, and technology companies like Cisco to power its work.
With Cisco, myAgro was able to take some tech projects from the back burner to the field. Over their three-year relationship, Cisco has offered myAgro expertise in various technologies, in addition to a grant that helped myAgro improve the functionality and flexibility of its layaway platform and create new digital tools for farmers.
Before the partnership, myAgro had laid the groundwork for a digital payments system, as well as a data platform and field tools that hadn’t yet been scaled up, Wiesner said. “The Cisco funding allowed us to hire direct developers, allowed us to grow that team, allowed us to iterate more quickly… and then also to push it out to the team as a whole,” he added.
The data platform proved particularly useful, as it allows myAgro and its partners to access real-time data about farmers, their needs, and how myAgro helps to address them. “There’s a shared accountability,” Wiesner said of the platform. “It’s not just us reporting something — [our team and our partners] have access to live data. As things are happening, they can check in and see how things are progressing versus targets. That’s been really powerful — to open that up, to share that, to make that transparent across the board.”
Tech investments can help smallholder farmers cope with the pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts lives and livelihoods around the world, threatening to push up to half a billion people back into poverty, the importance of supporting smallholder farmers is more apparent than ever. “Food security is much worse for so many farmers” amidst the pandemic, Wiesner said.
Like countless organizations around the world, myAgro was forced to pivot quickly as it attempted to keep tabs on government regulations and what was happening on the ground. It transitioned agricultural training sessions to video, radio and broadcast, took more payments by phone, and fielded frequent questions from farmers.
Though the shift was challenging, myAgro actually grew its reach by 44 percent and delivered seeds and fertilizers as expected last season, Wiesner told us. “It was definitely a huge disruption, but still a very successful season,” he said. “[COVID-19] has emphasized some of the things we already made investments in: Some of the digital tools and data actually helped us … make that transition easier than it would have been three or five years ago.”
Technology will continue to be crucial in lifting farmers out of poverty
Overall, technology is poised to play an increasingly vital role in better serving smallholder farmers: In a 2020 report, the professional services firm EY cited digital innovation as a means to lift millions of smallholder farmers out of poverty, and the World Bank predicts that digital technology will be key to improving the world’s food system.
For its part, myAgro aims to leverage its model to increase the incomes of 1 million smallholder farmers by $1.50 a day by 2025. “A lot of our growth is really now focusing on what has already worked and finding great opportunities to scale it up,” Wiesner said.
This article series is sponsored by Cisco and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of myAgro