Mobile Phones and Apps Making a Difference in the Lives of Poor Farmers

Accessing the info they never had and producing more, better

A farmers’ organization in Western Kenya uses mobile phones to access a digital marketplace and bypass middlemen. Now trading directly with exporters, the group is seeing dramatic increases in income. New mobile applications are also being used to provide timely information about disease outbreaks to farmers in Eastern Africa, so they can prepare and prevent the pests from affecting their livestock.

Understanding and addressing global agriculture developments—both positive and negative—are critical to improving smallholder livelihoods. These are just two examples of how the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) can improve smallholder farmers’ income and increase agricultural productivity. Expanded and increasingly affordable connectivity and tools, especially mobile phones, as well as advances in data storage and open access, have made ICT relevant to agriculture.

Now, the World Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department (ARD) has teamed up with infoDev to connect smallholder farmers to knowledge, networks, and institutions.

“The missing link to achieving smallholder farmer growth has always been access to timely, cost-effective, and personally relevant information on improved practices, markets, prices, inputs, weather―and impending disasters,” said Mark Cackler, sector manager for ARD.

Smallholder farmers, who still provide a significant portion of the world’s food, need information to advance their work just as much as industrial-scale producers, but they often lack access to simple tools and technologies that can provide essential information on prices, markets, varieties, production techniques, services, storage, or processing. As a result, smallholder farmers remain dependent primarily on word of mouth, previous experience, and local leadership.

But this is changing as the types of ICT-enabled services useful to improving the capacity and livelihoods of poor smallholders are growing quickly. For example, short messaging service (SMS) is now enabling mobile phones to be used as a platform for agricultural information exchange.

Reuters Market Light services over 200,000 smallholder subscribers in 10 different states in India for a cost of $1.50 per month. The farmers receive four to five SMS messages per day on prices, commodities, and advisory services from a database with information on 150 crops and more than 1,000 markets. Preliminary evidence suggests that collectively, the service may have generated $2–3 billion in income for farmers, while over 50 percent of them have reduced their spending on agriculture inputs.

The World Bank has actively participated in the integration of ICT in large agricultural investments. After Uruguay was struck by a virulent outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in 2001, the Bank provided $25 million through loans and grants to generate and scale out an innovative animal tracking system that contributed to the eradication of FMD in Uruguay, which has become a globally-recognized model for effective food safety and surveillance. Portfolio reviews show that 80 percent of Bank agriculture projects already contain ICT components; however, most of these components are for administrative purposes such as delivering computers to client country offices. With the increased affordability and uptake of new technologies, the Bank has increased opportunity to invest in and impact small-scale farmers more directly.

The recently launched ICT in Agriculture e-Sourcebook produced by ARD and infoDev (a technology and innovation trust fund program in the Financial and Private Sector Network), with funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, is an online resource that provides both technical as well as policy guidance to practitioners and decision makers in developing countries, international organizations and bilateral agencies. The goal is to capture the rapidly evolving ICT environment as a pivotal change factor for agricultural productivity and rural development.

“ICT in agriculture is at present an area of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ with plenty of exciting anecdotal evidence,” said Eija Pehu, science advisor with the ARD and one of the coordinators of the report. “It can be transformative. It gives a voice and access to information to small-scale farmers including women, who never had such direct access before.”

The e-Sourcebook is a compilation of modules related to 14 agricultural subsectors. Each module covers the challenges, lessons learned, and enabling factors associated with using ICT to improve smallholder livelihoods in these subsectors. Over 200 examples and case studies across the regions are presented. It is fully and freely available on the web at

“It was a conscious decision to publish the report as an e-Sourcebook, and then host an interactive e-Forum with partners,” says Tim Kelly, lead ICT specialist and one of the coordinators of the report. “ICTs continue to evolve rapidly and so to remain relevant, this has to be an open source of information, with ample opportunities for knowledge exchange and updating,” he explains.

Having an Impact

In Liberia, where forests cover 45 percent of the total land area and are an essential source of revenue, illegal logging has been a problem. The solution has been a public-private partnership LiberFor, which prevents illegal timber from entering markets and being exported by tracking the forest supply chain from stump to the point of export. The system has tagged and located approximately 440,000 trees, verified approximately 180,000 trees in the system, and invoiced more than $11 million in revenue. Read more.

In rural Kenya, ICT applications reduce the cost of financial services. Safaricom’s M-PESA, an SMS-based money transfer system allows individuals to deposit, send, and withdraw funds using cell phones. Kenyans use M-PESA to deposit money with a registered agent or phone vendor, and the agent then credits the phone account. Users send funds via text message to a recipient, who then obtains the cash from a Safaricom agent by entering a password and showing personal identification. Read more.

Also in Kenya, two female IT professionals founded m-Farm in 2010, a company that lets farmers receive crop prices and market information via SMS on their mobile phones, and connects them directly with food exporters. Less than two years on, m-Farm reaches over 2000 farmers, including many female smallholders, and has won several international innovation prizes. Read more.

In 39 African countries, Farm Radio International spreads knowledge of improved farming and land management practices. The Canadian NGO partners with 360 radio stations reaching more than 200 million smallholders in more than 100 African languages. Participatory program themes range from livestock husbandry to farmer innovation, soil conservation, and issues specific to rural women. Farmers help to develop the scripts, and a number of communities are invited to participate during implementation and evaluation. Read more.

In India, Digital Green disseminates targeted agricultural information to small-scale and marginal farmers through digital videos produced by farmers and experts. The topics vary, and they are sequenced in ways that enable farmers progressively to become better farmers. Read more.

To access the e-Sourcebook, receive more information, and participate in future e-forums, please visit:

Contributed by Amy Stilwell, Senior Communications Officer, ARD and Angela Bekkers, Senior Communications Officer, InfoDev


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