In Ghana, smallholder farmers account for 80 per cent of domestic food production. In 2013, energetic social technology entrepreneurs Alloysius Attah and Emmanuel Owusu Addai established Farmerline. Headquartered in Ghana, Farmerline is a technology product company that builds supply chain and value chain solutions to integrate agricultural outputs of rural farmers in Africa. We speak to co-founder and CEO, Alloysius Attah, about the opportunities, challenges and future of the Farmerline project.
What are the main challenges faced by rural farmers?
In the rural agricultural community in Ghana, small-scale farmers face the ongoing challenge of lack of access to expert agricultural information and real-time data support. Many rural farmers do not have any formal education so many of them cannot read or write. It is therefore hard to get practical day-to-day advice about how best to run their farms and derive maximum profit. My aunt has a two-acre smallholding and I grew up watching her face these challenges. I found it frustrating. Farmers, like my aunt, don’t have access to basic information like current market prices for their crops, consequently bargaining power when it comes to agreeing a sale price for their produce is very limited.
The Ghanaian government has tried to address this issue by providing ‘agricultural extension agents’ to train smallholders. It is definitely a step in the right direction. However each agent is responsible for approximately 2,000 farmers, so the agents are thinly spread and consequently there isn’t a huge amount of opportunity for the rural farmers to access the agents regularly enough to derive all the information they need or to ask the agents questions about how to improve farming techniques and so on.
What is the purpose of Farmerline and how does it seek to address these issues?
In essence, Farmerline is a service specifically focused on smallholder farmers and organisations that need more access to resources. Farmerline connects farmers to markets, financial information, weather forecasts, farming tips and techniques and equipment services through the application of mobile technology. The overall objective is to help smallholder farmers increase their productivity and yield so that they can generate more profit and develop viable, sustainable businesses. Our goal is to empower two million farmers by 2024 and to improve their livelihoods by helping them access information that results in improved harvests.
Realising that around two-thirds of people in rural Ghana now have a mobile phone, we saw an opportunity to bridge the information gap using mobile technology. Rather than relying purely on information transmission by SMS (which obviously has limited value for those that cannot read) Farmerline’s service is delivered as voice recordings in a range of local languages. Through our mobile messaging platform, governments, development partners and businesses can provide farmers with crop management updates faster and at low cost. The information can be received on any type of phone and there’s no need for technical knowledge. Farmers can receive SMS text messages or voice recordings in their own local language, using content generated by NGOs and other partnership organisations.
How is the information Farmerline provided applied?
Farmers pay a small subscription fee and use their mobile phone to receive regular, seasonal information that’s specifically tailored to their situation. For example how much fertiliser to apply to their fields or how much feed to drop into their fish ponds, as well as location and crop specific information. As well as providing farmers with information, Farmerline also collates useful intelligence from farmers. For example, farmers might be asked to contribute to surveys assessing the overall effectiveness of initiatives. They can also ask specific questions via a dedicated support line. The idea is to ensure rural farmers have access to best practice guidance in all areas related to farming including things like product storage, reducing pest infestations and how to get products to market.
Farmerline which is available in 12 local languages, essentially digitises the work of extension agents. As well as using mobile technology, the Farmerline team works in partnership with the government’s agricultural extension agents in hosting face-to-face workshops for farmers. These workshops help build relationships so that the farmers learn to trust those seeking to support them. The workshops also offer training on topics like market conditions, distribution channels, seasonal and local farming issues and financial management.
What impact has Farmerline had on rural farming in Ghana?
Currently we work with in excess of 5,000 farmers across seven regions in Ghana. According to our latest impact assessment, smallholder farmers receiving our educational content can improve their yields and incomes by an average 55.6 per cent. This is really important to us because when we first started, the goal was to build the next Facebook, or to develop the next big technology, and ultimately make money for ourselves. We have since discovered that what we are doing is
“‘… smallholder farmers receiving our educational content can improve their yields and incomes by an average 55.6 per cent.’”
much more satisfying than just making money. It is really rewarding to feel that Farmerline is actually making a difference by improving the quality of people’s lives and allowing rural communities to prosper.
Is Farmerline only available in Ghana?
Currently we work directly with about 5,000 farmers in Ghana but our technology is used by a further 200,000 farmers across West Africa namely Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Nigeria. This has been made possible through our partnerships with NGOs and international food companies such as Hershey, Ecom Trading and Armajaro. Farmerline is a very versatile technology so essentially the service
“‘… we work directly with about 5,000 farmers in Ghana but our technology is used by a further 200,000 farmers across West Africa’”
can be deployed in any language where there’s a demand and it can be used across a range of products. For example we started out working with fisheries but now the technology is used for crop farming. The goal is to expand our reach across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced as a business?
Initially, just getting someone to believe in our project was the hardest thing. Few people thought that two young men like Emmanuel and I could develop or roll out something worthwhile that would have a positive impact on people’s lives. We faced a lot of criticism and there were times when it made us defensive. We came close to giving up numerous times, but we’ve learned a lot since then.
Another significant challenge we continue to face is the battle for talent. There is huge market competition amongst start-ups for talented staff, for example programmers. We have learned that although we can’t compete with the big tech companies on salaries, we can definitely offer people the chance to work in an up-and-coming exciting company which is having a real impact on people’s quality of life. We’ve also learned how to listen and accept constructive feedback.
What’s Farmerline’s vision for the future?
Our short to medium term objective is to make Farmerline accessible in more African countries. Longer term, we want to expand beyond Africa into countries across Asia, Latin America and basically any jurisdiction where there’s an information gap relating to expertise about agricultural intelligence.
Ultimately the goal is to build on what we have achieved and to get the technology into the hands of those who need it the most. Closely tied to the vision is a desire to be African ambassadors for social entrepreneurship by showing others that it is possible to have a wider community impact simply by seeking to engender change in your corner of the world.