For smallholder farmers across Malawi, crop production is merely half of the battle. The real challenge comes postharvest, when the race begins to access markets and secure a profit before a yield spoils. With no information, determining potential points of sale, buyers and the going rate is a game of chance.
In the past, such uncertainty left smallholders in a vulnerable position. Isolated, and often desperate to make a sale, rural farmers would unknowingly agree to sell goods at rates far below the market price. Furthermore, large portions of harvests would go to waste as smallholders struggled to locate viable markets for their goods.
Malawi’s agricultural productivity has been hampered by this clear lack of transparency. The inability of farmers and traders to access information has led to inefficient supply chains and overall market inaccessibility. Beyond the obvious issue of food security, a vibrant agriculture industry is essential to furthering economic growth, expanding trade partnerships and creating income-generating opportunities in developing countries like Malawi.
Aiming to improve the productivity of Malawi’s agribusiness sector, the Market Linkages Initiative (MLI) was launched in 2009. Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Famine Prevention Fund, MLI sought to revolutionize Malawi’s agriculture sector by establishing a broad communications network to integrate isolated, rural farmers into Malawi’s regional and national markets – thereby, strengthening food security. In light of the rapid uptake in mobile phone usage across Malawi, communication via SMS text messaging was determined to be the most efficient and cost-effective way to enable access to information.
Today, MLI’s electronic market information system platform informs approximately 4,000 Malawian smallholders of price variances and trends on a weekly basis via SMS text messaging. The platform, Esoko, sends farmers and traders price updates for particular goods – maize, groundnuts, grain, etc. – in their respective marketplace directly to their mobile device. Currently, MLI offers updates from 13 key markets spanning Malawi’s northern, central and southern regions.
When Malawian farmers travel to the marketplace today, they have “a clear location and clear price because of SMS technology,” explained MLI Bridging Activity Chief of Party Rob Turner. “The important thing is that for the first time they have information to base their decision on,” he added.
Knowledge is power and according to Turner, access to information is empowering farmers to make informed decisions on when, where, and how to sell their goods. With real-time information at their fingertips, Malawian smallholders have succeeded in bargaining with traders for better deals, increasing their profits and identifying opportunities for expansion into new markets.
While “the Ministry of Agriculture also provides price information,” USAID Senior Agricultural Technical Analyst Vincent Langdon-Morris noted, “it is often criticized for being obsolete and out of date.” Furthermore, this official government data is not distributed via SMS, or used for commercial purposes. Instead, this information is released to the media who report prices for select commodities via radio broadcast.
However, USAID Communications Specialist Oris Chimenya said that if a smallholder happened to miss a particular market price announcement, there is not a secondary avenue where that information can be retrieved. “There is no website, there is no written material, and there is no other linkage between the farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture,” Chimenya explained.
“There has been discussion, because of literacy issues, that it would be more effective to use radio or send voicemail to farmers,” Turner said. Upon further investigation, however, it was discovered that smallholders generally prefer to receive information via SMS. Essentially, the ability to save and refer back to information, as well as note trends over time, add to the inherent value of SMS technology. Overall, SMS remains the best method for cost effectively reinforcing a message in a timely manner.
According to Turner, “SMS is tailor made for a place like Malawi.” As “the value of SMS goes up the poorer the country,” Malawi’s underdeveloped infrastructure and communications networks create a better climate for SMS projects than countries like Kenya – where 3G networks rule. Interestingly, Turner also noted that rural Malawians have proven to be “willing to spend a very significant amount of their income in order to have a phone because it is so valuable to them.” As for the future of SMS technology in Malawi, Turner believes that this mentality is proof that “there is a lot of room for growth.”