Coordinating with SMS: Flies, Mangos and mAgric

Brought to us by CEO Mark Davies on the heels of a trip to Burkina Faso. 

Technology discovers itself through use. A truism to be sure, but it really is fascinating how technology designers are educated by the unintended uses of what they’ve built. Good technologists know that the best way to improve their product is to spread it and observe, then be responsive when the market guides them. Those who seek to perfect an idea in the office and assume it will be used as intended have surprises in store.

As in, we’ve had a significant number of farmers talk about how price discovery has helped them in their marriages. And last week, a farmer called our call centre for a weather forecast because he was about to plaster and paint his house.

Esoko started out as a market price discovery tool to help farmers negotiate better prices. It’s come a long way since then. Here’s one example of how:

Last month I was in Burkina Faso, selecting a private partner to take over the project that was launched and run by MCA for the last three years. We decided to visit Bobo-Dioulassou in the west of the country – it’s the economic capital as well as the heart of the mango sector. I met with UNPMB (Union Nationale des Producteurs de Mangue du Burkina), a large association of mango growers that represents about a third of the industry in Burkina, or 4,000 growers out of an estimated national count of 15,000. It was a standard meeting to check in with Esoko clients so I could better understand how they’re using the platform and what services they needed. I didn’t expect to learn anything that I hadn’t picked up from other farming associations in the past, but I was mistaken.

mango flies

Persistent flies burrow in, disrupting the yearly mango crop.

As the harvest season approaches in hot, dry Bobo-Dioulasso, the plump mangoes mature and soften to perfection. But like clockwork les mouches (flies) arrive and burrow in, destroying the fruits. It’s an age-old problem and the only way anyone’s been able to solve it is by spraying. But the spray is expensive and isn’t always effective. Coordinating the growers to spray the right amount at the right time has always been problematic.

Paul Ouédraogo, the UNPMB president, sat across the table from me and quietly recounted how last season’s harvest was quite different.

In previous years, the association organized meetings with growers to emphasize the importance of and best practices around spraying– what to spray, when to spray, and how and when to remove the fallen mangoes that contained fly eggs. The two day meetings included around 35 growers from around the country (each a representative of a local chapter), and cost around $2,000 to host. The growers would then return home and the association would hope that they spread the word in their communities and sprayed according to the guidelines.

But in 2013 they began coordinating all of these activities with SMS using Esoko’s platform. First, they realized that they only needed a one-day meeting with the 35 grower representatives and could share the rest of the necessary information through text messages. Second, using SMS meant that they could cheaply reach more than the 35 who normally attended the meeting. They upped the number of chapter representatives to 300 and began sending frequent SMS messages on best practices. They also coordinated their spraying so that all the growers in each district knew to treat their trees at the same time. The flies couldn’t simply jump to a nearby, untreated field if all the fields were being sprayed simultaneously.

The impact of this coordinated SMS effort was significant. With each representative coordinating local efforts, the group actually extended the season – usually ending in June – all the way to August. Those two extra months brought an additional 3000 metric tonnes of output. Though UNPMB points to Esoko as the only factor behind the change, we’re wary of saying that 100% of the production increases were attributable to the platform. But nevertheless this coordinated effort is something you could only do cost effectively with SMS – no association is going to spend the time or the money to call or visit hundreds of people in a day to coordinate a spraying.

SMS poll

At the same time, UNPMB was experimenting with a new spray – though much cheaper, its proper local dosage wasn’t completely understood. The association was working with the government to try different dosages to see what was effective. So as a follow-up to the spraying, UNPMB asked the growers to respond using Esoko’s SMS polling service. The questions where multiple choice, asking whether they’d sprayed, which of the three dosage options they’d used, and what the outcome was. Over 80% of the growers responded. Mr. Ouédraogo said that high response rate was simple to understand – it made commercial sense. These growers were making more money from more mangoes by using a cheaper product, and thus were incentivized to participate. They realized that their help guiding the group to build out the best practices would help them in the end.

My big takeaway from Burkina was that something as simple as coordinating activities can have a huge impact on reducing costs and increasing productivity. Association leadership saved money by cutting their meeting time in half and using SMS to supplement. They were able to communicate with more people more frequently. And most importantly, farmers increased revenues when they were all working together and with the best information available.

Adding 3,000 MT to Burkina’s mango harvest is a win-win for everyone – except the flies!- and it’s clear that Esoko and other market information services can be successfully used for more than what they were designed for. I have no doubt that these inventive uses of Esoko will continue, surprising our technologists and allowing the market to tell us what it needs, instead of the other way around.

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