Phone tools for small farmers

18 March 2012 - 02:16 By LONI PRINSLOO

A new study commissioned by Vodafone has found that small-scale farmers in emerging economies could save billions by using smartphones for banking, to get vital farm-related information and to gain market access.

According to the survey, run in conjunction with Accenture and Oxfam, farmers could access information such as weather warnings, commodity prices and planting tips. They could boost their income by $138-billion by 2020 and reduce food wastage.

Accenture strategy director Grant Hatch said upping production by small-scale farmers in Africa, South America and Asia is essential to secure the world's future food supply.

At present small-scale farmers feed about a third of the seven billion people on Earth, said Hatch. But the population is set to grow to about 9.2 billion people by 2050. Together with the effects of climate change, urbanisation and changing eating habits, global food production needs to be upped by some 70%. Africa uses only 20% of its arable land to farm on and imports close to $50-billion worth of food every year.

Hatch said using cellphones can increase the efficiency of small-scale farmers. "It is still a very new concept, but companies are looking to develop very simple applications that can easily be used by farmers in even the most remote areas."

He said companies are already rolling out 2G and 2.5G infrastructure in rural areas, which will be sufficient to enable the applications to operate. "We have seen that people take to these applications very quickly," said Hatch, citing the example of M-Pesa, which is used for banking services and micro financing.

In Nigeria, the government is successfully using mobile phones to register farmers and to distribute vouchers for fertiliser, he said.

More than half of agricultural workers are women and in some countries the proportion is as high as 70%. The report suggests applications and other cellphone solutions be tailored to the specific needs of women and be marketed to them.