Monica Rashid is a smallholder farmer and Msambafumu Network, Lisasadzi Extension Planning Area (EPA) in Kasungu district. She faces challenges in accessing produce markets, extension services, and market information like many other farmers living in remote areas that are far from thriving trading centres.
“Searching for markets required money, physical stamina and a lot of time travelling. We used to leave this for men,” said Monica.
In this context, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in collaboration with the Government of Malawi, through the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Agriculture Extension Services (DAES), have provided 78 smartphones to smallholder farmers like Monica, to enhance market-led digital extension services. The initiative is made possible with funding from the Government of Flanders under the marketing capacity building for smallholder farmers project in Mzimba and Kasungu districts. The main goal of the project is to strengthen the capacity of the decentralized institutions of the Ministry of Agriculture to support smallholder market-oriented agricultural production. The project implementation period is from December 2015 to December 2021.
The smartphones have been distributed to the Farmer Field Schools (FFS) networks and cooperatives to support smallholder farmers to access agriculture advisory services, market information and to build business networks with value chain actors through digital platforms. In addition, smartphones are aimed at overcoming challenges resulting from restrictions arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other endemic extension challenges such as inadequate extension staff and limited mobility.
As one of the smallholder farmers for whom the smartphones make a difference, Monica says, “Now with a smartphone, we will be able to get market information and link with markets while we are at home caring for our children. We also get advice from extension workers and other digital platforms.”
Digital platforms present numerous advantages which can support market-led agriculture, enhancing the efficiency and competitiveness of agribusinesses, supporting extension services and empowering women in transcending cultural and gender gaps by reaching out to women and men, youths, the elderly, the disabled in the same way thus increasing inclusivity.
The smartphones were distributed to 34 women and 44 men. It is envisaged that participation of women on these platforms will help them to leapfrog inequalities and to become more engaged in agricultural development through access to agronomic knowledge, market information and networking.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced contact hours for outreach programmes. As a safety measure, extension service providers meet farmers for fewer hours and usually in smaller groups. A shift to digital platforms makes extension services easily accessible and more convenient to the user.
The platforms allow access to production technologies through videos, voices and pictures as a means of enhancing the adoption of improved technologies. Such platforms also take into consideration of people with low literacy levels and those with disabilities increasing extension outreach considerably.
“Before having the smartphones and with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard for us to share information with our farmers which made it very costly to communicate with the farmers. We are now able to send messages through videos, audios and documents to farmers. In addition, our farmers are able to advertise their products online,” says Kondwani Mponela Mwandila, a government Agricultural Extension Development Officer, for Chipala EPA, in Kasungu district.
Digital platforms present numerous advantages that can support market-led agriculture. They help to reduce time spent and transport costs on market research. In this way, transaction costs are greatly reduced and this increases the competitiveness of agribusinesses.
“With a smartphone farmers can easily link up with markets through emails and on social media such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook,” said Ezra Mbendera, Director of Agriculture Environment and Natural Resources for Mzimba South District
He added that with the phones that have been distributed, farmers will be able to access information on different technologies at a time most convenient to them through social media and apps such as the Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System (FAMEWS), and Zaulimi: a guide to how to raise pigs, among others. This he said, would contribute to increased adoption of improved technologies and better investment decisions, and would reduce transaction and information costs significantly making agribusinesses competitive.