In African agriculture: information is power
You do not have to spend long in Zimbabwe agricultural markets such as Mbare Musika – the biggest agriculture market in the capital Harare to realise the need for better information. Farmers lack prices, traders need transport and new contacts; merchants need a better way to reach out to customers, businesses in general lack real-time updates on their stock and the value of their harvests. The list goes on.
Standing in the heart of her garlic and onion irrigation plot in Goromonzi district of Zimbabwe, Janet Murira, gripping two mobile phones, tells the story of her most recent sale. Traders came to her offering just US$0.20c per kilogram for her crop of onions.
This time around Janet and her husband Edward had their mobile phones on hand and did a quick phone call to a friend at Mbare Musika in Harare to check on the current price of onions. Of course, although the information they received was not very reliable, Janet says she was able to renegotiate the price that the buyer was offering.
However, more still needs to be done in a country with a mobile phone penetration rate of more than 90 percent.
In the past, farmers like Janet and her husband had no choice but to blindly accept the prices offered by traders. But the recent opportunities offered by mobile phones have the potential to disrupt that whole dynamic.
It gives farmers confidence that they did not have before, and it takes away the opportunity for traders to lie about prices in faraway markets. “Before we had mobile phones we were incapacitated,” says a smiling Janet while attending to her lush garlic field.
“Knowing that the makoronyera (trader/middlemen) will resell in the capital city’s market for more than US$1,80 per kilogram for onions, I refused to budge until we negotiated to US$0.80 cents. I more than doubled my profits for the month making US$320 instead of a paltry US$80. That’s US$240 more. And just for the price of a phone call,” concludes a smiling Janet.
It’s only until you hear these stories that you can actually wrap your head around the information deficit in rural areas across Zimbabwe. Just think for a moment about the amount of information you have at your fingertips everyday. Now slowly take sources out of the mix – Newspapers, magazines. Email? Gone. TV vanishes. Both Internet and smartphones disappear. You are basically left with your neighbours, the radio, and that simple 2G phone. Now imagine trying to make a sale.
Seeing Janet access current prices direct from the market (though not as a reliable as systems developed in other African countries) – like a stock trader accessing Reuters – shows just how powerful information itself can be. Farmers are business people too. But they cannot do good business if they do not have information. Janet’s story about using a mobile phone to get price information or communicate with traders to increase revenues is not the only one we have heard recently in Zimbabwe. Mobile technology is just beginning to take centre stage here, and it is remarkable to watch.
Mobile phones in Zimbabwe, where agriculture is the biggest employer as everywhere else in Africa have a huge potential in increasing yields and incomes for farmers such as Janet. Many of these smallholder farmers have no or limited access to finance and technology.
By serving as platforms for sharing weather information, market prices, and micro-insurance schemes, mobile phones can allow Zimbabwe's farmers to make better decisions, translating into higher-earning potentials.
With mobile technology farmers are able to send a text message to find out crop prices in places thousands of kilometres away. Mobile agriculture also offers weather information services that allow farmers to know their specific location weather details to the hour.