'Please remember to weed your plot'

Hotline operators at the Mumias Sugar Co. help farmers increase their yields and livelihoods. Photo by: Benson Otieno

They can help save lives and improve the delivery of services. And for tens of thousands of farmers in Kenya, they hold the potential of increasing crop yields.

Text messages and how they can improve agricultural productivity for some 100,000 Kenyan farmers are the focus of a study led by a team of Harvard researchers affiliated with Innovations for Poverty Action. The research is supported by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Development Innovation Ventures, and conducted in collaboration with Mumias Sugar Co., which is working with small-scale sugarcane farmers and one of the largest agribusinesses in East Africa.

Under the trial, Mumias sends personalized text messages containing information on agricultural technologies and reminders about agricultural practices. Each text message costs 1.5 cents.

Here’s an example: “Jambo Mr./Ms. [farmer name]. It is 4 weeks since you planted, your plot may have weeds by now; Please remember to weed your plot this week. This message is from Mumias Sugar Outgrowers Helpline.”

It doesn’t end there. The company has also set up a hotline that farmers can call to submit concerns such as delays in payment or delivery of farming inputs. Operators receiving the calls, when necessary, redirect the queries to the appropriate company department. Lorenzo Casaburi, one of the researchers, said some 2,000 farmers have now accessed the service.

According to Casaburi, the trial has shown encouraging results: Access to the SMS scheme is raising farmer yields and farmer access to the hotline is improving the company’s performance when it comes to input delivery.

“This will be immediately valuable to other agribusiness companies that rely on small-scale farmers for their crop supply,” he told Devex. “At a broader level, the research will contribute to the small but growing body of studies that explore creative solutions to use ICT for small-scale farmers.”

Aside from completing the evaluation, which will inform a cost-benefit analysis, the researchers hope to replicate the project in other settings. Casaburi noted that a similar program in India called Avaaj Otalo is also showing promise. But he agreed that more evidence is needed to build a solid case for investing in this type of service.

Other challenges to replicating or scaling up similar initiatives elsewhere include the availability of cell phones and cell phone connectivity, the collection of farmers’ phone numbers and the cost of providing accurate agricultural information and addressing queries of farmers.

Mumias, Casaburi said, is “well-positioned” to provide the service because it has been collecting rich farmer-level administrative data like farmer name, plot size, age of cane in the field, inputs received and cane variety. In addition, the company “clearly sees that these interventions could increase its profits, by raising farmer yields and improving input usage.”

But “scaling up this type of intervention to farmers that sell to small traders on the informal market, and thus are not part of these more sophisticated value chains, may be challenging,” he added.

Casaburi believes the project should inspire partnership between aid groups and large contract companies.

He said: “The aid community should aim to identify and partner with other large contract farming organizations, since these have the potential to reach a large number of farmers at a relatively low cost. This is particularly relevant as contract farming in the developing world has been growing over the last decade. … Development organizations could provide these companies with the right incentives to pilot similar programs among their contract farmers, for instance by bearing a portion of the initial fixed costs in terms of data collection and logistics.”

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About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.

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