Evil Weevil, or Vani’s Adventures North

Vani on  her new tractor Because of close to zero background in agriculture & because Esoko’s service offerings are mainly in the field of agriculture, I decided to (read as ‘forced to’) venture on this 3 days trip to Tamale. As part of the USAID accelerator program (in the Northern part of Ghana) we are supposed to interview agribusinesses & farmers to enroll them onto the program. And that’s how I got to fulfill my wish of learning a little more about agriculture. And the fact that Mark & Stephen were present throughout made it even better.

Flight to Tamale from Accra was a quickie. It’s just an hour and the airport is in the middle of nowhere with I think just one air strip. Stephen (in charge of the accelerator program) who had gone ahead of us met us there and we embarked on this “trying to learn more about Agriculture” journey.

I liked Tamale instantly! The town is clean and a lot greener (in comparison to Accra), roads are wide, women on their mopeds riding with such joy. The first interview Stephen arranged was with a farmer based organization (FBO) called ZOCOFFAMS (mind you, that’s an acronym and I can’t recall what it stands for, and there are plenty more to come). On our way to their office Stephen tells us that ZOCOFFAMS managed over 2000 farmers and also act as aggregators (get in touch with me if you don’t know what aggregators mean) I was for some strange reason expecting to meet this typical big shot type of person in a suit and tie, decent office, air conditioning etc.

Reaching the rural farmer with modern technology

Over the years innovation has driven the development of new tools and services to tackle different areas of the agricultural value chain…now including, of course, exciting new technologies using mobile phones. All of these innovations aim to improve food production and security, the livelihoods of individual farmers, and the business of farming in general. But the majority of food production remains in the hands of rural farmers who have little or no access to these quickly moving we-can’t-wait-for-anyone technologies. So one big question remains unanswered: Why are the best technologies not reaching smallholder farmers? And how do we ensure that the technologies are relevant to the farming community and actually improving the livelihoods of farmers? Isaac Boateng (IB) and Philip Asihene (PA) of the Esoko monitoring and evaluation team share some insights.

Esoko: What are some of the challenges you face out there in the field? 

: Lack of education and high rates of illiteracy are major problems. Though almost all farmers Esoko has dealt with have mobile phones and have access to phones, only a few know how to use the phones apart from making and receiving calls. Many cannot read and write and so understanding the messages we send them is difficult – some have to rely on the educated friends, children or others to interpret for them.

Isaac with a cassava farmer

Isaac with a cassava farmer

Esoko: Do you face any challenges from the mobile network operators? 

PA: I think our major problem is the fact that some of the farming areas are still out the coverage areas of these networks, and some areas just have poor network coverage. Sometimes we see farmers standing at specific points in their community to get connected. Imagine the sight of about 20 people stationed at a point and making calls, checking or sending messages. This limits the effectiveness of any technology solution deployed on the mobile phone.

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Coming Out (My Esoko Story)

David!I joined Esoko 3 months ago. Before joining the organization, I always saw the building on my way home from school, orange and white, and tall. I thought it was a software development firm; which is not completely far from the truth. Anyways, an opening in the communications department, freshly out of a communications school, an interview and a test later I got the job as a communication officer. Now I read about Esoko before my interview (obviously), so I knew it was not just developing software and collecting data prices but was heavily invested in changing the lives of small holder farmers and helping the growth of the agricultural value chain. It was all so nice in abstract and theory. Working here, I read a lot of success stories, case studies and heard Mark Davies, the CEO and other members of the team talk about the impact we were making. I got it and yet I didn’t get it. It was all like “ok so we are changing the lives of farmers, people can now make intelligent buying and selling decisions”… all nice, but it was on paper and it was people involved in the process who were telling me this. Like you know, blowing their own trumpet and stuff… ah well it sounded nice theoretically.
Three months after joining Esoko, our colleagues from our new office in Kenya came down for a visit to see how Esoko Ghana went about operations and to basically get acquainted with the platform. So as part of their visit, we arranged for Paolo, (MD of the Kenya office) and Clem (the Kenyan Sales Manager) to visit one of our beneficiary farms in Esueshia, in the Central region. When Vani, the head of Client Service told me about the trip and asked if the communications team (Garrett and I) would like to join, I was ecstatic. I was practically like a grade school kid going on his first field trip.

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Esoko’s Second mAGRIC showcase

magric 13 bannerBy 2050 Africa’s population is expected to double from 1 to 2 billion and there’s growing concern about how the world will feed itself.  Much attention is focused on Africa where production remains at about 20% of its potential. To try to harness this potential, dozens of technical innovations around mobile have been built both to help farmers produce more and make more money and for businesses to find African agriculture a more attractive investment. But the space remains opaque. To help the local community understand some of these innovations and learn the ins and outs about their rollout and challenges to scale we hosted the second mobile for agricultural development workshop –  ‘mAGRIC Showcase 2013’ this May. GIZ was our trusty co-sponsor.

The one day event brought participants from the software, agribusiness, NGO and mobile industries together. There was several presentations – the Centre for Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Services (CERSGIS) showcased an online GIS platform to assist in locating farms, warehouses, and weather stations. Farm Radio International shared how they are using radio programs to reach out to farmers, sharing information to help improve their production. They also have radio on demand services where farmers who missed a particular program can call a number and listen to a recorded version of the program.

GIZ COMPACI showcased progress made with the African Cashew Initiative who are using radio programs to push forward new extension technology, as well as headway made in cotton production in Africa through the Competitive African Cotton InitiativeMOFA (Ministry of Food and Agriculture) presented the e-Extension project and its adoption, calling out the the ratio of extension officer to farmers and the rapid explosion of mobile phone usage in the country.

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Coding in Country

A fast paced question and answer session with Chinedu Okonkwo, software engineer.

chinedu_phoneWhat do you work on at Esoko?

I work on the API (Application Programing Interface) of Esoko. The back end of the application. I mostly code in PHP & PL/SQL.

What led you to software development? 

First and foremost, I’ve always had an interest in creating things–programming and computing let you make things happen in real time and you can see them happen right in front of you. I can bring things to life this way. It also feeds a hero’s complex….I’m hoping that what I make can solve some of the problems I see around me.

Does it matter if software is made in Africa or in the West? What’s the difference?

I believe that there are cultural dynamics between Africa and the West that are largely different. One example of this is that African culture is more passive, so your software has to assume that and be the active part for it to be effective. Esoko fits into this with with price alerts and bulk SMS – ‘push’ elements are super important. Reaching out to a user instead of a user reaching into the system.

We as Africans tend to go our of our ways sometimes to just copy the West, and it’s much more interesting to use the same coding languages as the West but built things here, according to local needs.

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Impact in 2012 – a snapshot

Sara Maunda made $130 instead of $27 after receiving and using Esoko price alerts.

Sara Maunda made $130 instead of $27 after receiving and using Esoko price alerts.

As we come to the end the year, here’s a snapshot of how users are benefiting from Esoko across the continent.

In Malawi, Sara used to accept whatever price a local trader offered her. This time, she had an SMS telling her that less than 40 miles away in Lilongwe, the price for groundnuts which she was selling, was about .75 cents – more than 4 times the price a vendor was offering. She travelled to Lilongwe and sold 150 kg earning about $130 dollars after costs – if she had sold to the vendor she would have made $27 dollars. “I would have sold to him if it weren’t for the fact that I knew what the price was in Lilongwe through the messages I got from Esoko.”

In Uganda, Paul’s birds had cut their egg production from 69% to 40%. He received a message from Novus Neno Uganda and followed the nutritional advice. The results were amazing. “My birds can now afford to pay for their feeds and also pay something for my household.”

In Malawi, Land O’Lakes International Development designed 10-minute radio sessions on dairy production and marketing to improve waning milk yields, and used Esoko to set-up and deploy a series of SMS messages that informed isolated farmers of the program’s start times and reminded them of what was discussed. Through this, Land O’Lakes linked over 900 farmer-members to valuable farming and business information which they previously struggled to obtain.

And in Ghana, Mad. Grace used to buy 200 bags of maize each for GH₵70 in the Kwame Danso market (Brong Ahafo). It cost her GH₵7 to transport each bag to Kumasi (Ashanti). Through the ADVANCE project, she got an SMS from Esoko telling her that a bag of maize cost GH₵65 in the Ejura (Ashanti) market and after enquiries she realised that transporting each bag from Ejura to Kumasi would cost her GH₵5. Armed with this new information, Grace switched markets and now saves GH₵1400 on each round of trading activity.

Esoko hosts Ghana’s first mAGRIC showcase

We hosted Ghana’s first ever mobile for agricultural development workshop dubbed ‘mAGRIC Showcase 2012’ on May 15. The workshop, which was sponsored by EsokoGIZ and the World Bank (WAAPP), sought to bring together NGOs, key practitioners, researchers, development partners, mobile operators, software developers, agribusinesses and government to explore how mobile phones may play a vital role in developing agriculture.

magricDuring the one-day workshop, over 80 people took part in the interactive discussions to share their stories, ideas and lessons learned, and to brainstorm on how to discover, test and build new innovations using mobile phones across the agric sector. Participants also shared what common lessons are emerging to help anyone choosing a solution or deployment path.

Topics discussed included the role of intermediaries in bridging the gap between farmers and technology (or if intermediaries are needed at all), the possibilities offered by public-private partnerships, and the issue of scaling up projects while maintaining their sustainability.

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Esoko’s 4th Annual Partner Conference

Esoko being deployed in multiple countries across Africa presents unique and interesting challenges –  all specific to each country’s agricultural, cultural, mobile and economic environments. In light of this,  Esoko hosts as annual conference that brings together international partners to share ideas and learn from each other in person.

This year’s conference – the 4th of its kind – was held from April 23rd to 25th and included partners from Mozambique, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.


Day 1 Highlight: Emerging themes in MIS

Esoko CEO Mark Davies reminded partners of the need to keep up to speed with current trends to improve the market information system/service industry. From Esoko’s point of view, there are three main themes springing up to drive the industry – global agriculture, mobile agriculture and market information. Under these, they key issues raised included:

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Know your customer: Software developers visit farmers!

Most software developers just want to fix their eyes on their computers and write code – no disturbances, no distractions. ‘The business team should do all the client interactions, we don’t want to be bothered’, is the usual cliché.  But as with many other tech companies, Esoko understands the value of interacting with clients to know their real problems and develop solutions that will be most useful to them. Our engineering team has a “Know Your Customer” program in place – software engineers must go to field at some point to meet the farmers and other user groups they are building the tools for. Why? As Godwin Cudjoe puts it “By meeting them, we better understand the real-life consequences of our design decisions.” – and by the way, Godwin is an Engineering Manager at Esoko.
Erica and Samdan on the road.

Erica and Samdan on the road.

When Samdan was asked to join our recent field trainers on a trip to farmers in the Volta Region of Ghana, he was initially hesitant. “I tried to avoid it, my comfort zone is behind my machine, coding,  but I would have regretted not going”, he said after returning from the trip. He continued, “Every software developer who goes to meet with the end-user has an experience that he will cherish for a long time. You will see the impact and the change you are making, see the need of the people and solve it in your own small way to change someone’s life. I was expecting farmers to be literate but found otherwise, some couldn’t even open a text message on their phones and that meant something to me – simplicity! Now I’m motivated to do more.” Samdan shared an advice – simplicity is the best – make it simple and basic if you really want users to understand and use your product.

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