Esoko and the Chocolate Factory

prestatThe UK’s premiere chocolatier, Prestat, is committed to trading fairly. So what does that mean in practice? They’re currently funding a partnership between Cocoa Abrabopa and Esoko in Ghana, sending SMS messages to 1,000 cocoa farmers with market prices, weather forecasts and agricultural advice. Here, Prestat’s co-owner shares his thoughts on the intervention and the industry after a recent visit.

"Prestat Bill" with Ben Gyan Kesse from Cocoa Abrabopa and Doris from CSIR.

“Prestat Bill” with Ben Gyan Kesse from Cocoa Abrabopa and Doris from CSIR.

I’m Bill Keeling and I am the co-owner of Prestat which is a 112 year old chocolate company. Prestat is based in London and its founding family created the chocolate truffle. A lot has changed in the chocolate world in the last century but an awful lot has not. Cocoa continues to be grown mostly by smallholder subsistence farmers in West Africa and I visited Ghana to see if changes in supply chain management and information technology – as pioneered by Esoko – can result in improved farmer incomes.

I see the challenge as transforming subsistence farms into sustainable businesses. If successful, we can take pleasure not only in chocolate as a food but in the way it connects people from rainforest cocoa farmers to consumers in London, New York and Tokyo.

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Will it rain today? The weather, straight to your Inbox

‘I would have lost a total of 7 acres of various commodities, mostly maize, but for the timely weather advice I received from Esoko. All my peers who went in to plant without the information have lost all their crops due to the unpredictable rains.”

-Abdul-Rahman Inusah, Kanponyili, Northern Ghana


Every farmer needs rain, but even rain at the wrong time can destroy harvests, waste pesticides and seeds, and leave farmers without money – or options. With increasing inconsistencies in weather patterns, climate advisory services are becoming a necessity in rural agricultural communities.

Esoko started many years ago building the technology that allowed organizations to send their farmers relevant prices over SMS. Though delivering prices remains a key component of our platform, we’ve learned from farmers about these more sophisticated content needs – content that will help with their production, not just their marketing. That content is focussed on localized diseases, inputs, and of course, weather.

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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.

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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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Teach a Man to Text

Nicole Hildebrandt is a New York University/Center for Technology and Economic Development doctoral student working on a randomized control trial (RCT) on Esoko in Ghana. These are notes after her recent experience training farmers with the Esoko team. Thanks to CTED for the repost. 

Nicole observing farmers write a text message.

Nicole observing farmers write a text message.

It’s a challenge without any easy solutions.  I saw this first-hand at the Esoko training sessions I observed last month.  In the four-hour training sessions for the treatment group, the first three hours were devoted to Cell Phones 101 (how to navigate the menu, add a contact, check in Inbox, draft a message, and finally press “Send”).  Only the last hour was spent discussing the actual content of the Esoko messages, and how to use the information to obtain higher prices…and that was by far the portion of the training that was easiest for people to absorb. As a (late) twenty-something from the US, I’ve basically grown up using a mobile phone, so it’s hard for me to understand how people can not know how to send a text message (come on, mom, it’s not that hard!).  I think most people in my age cohort – and certainly all those high school and college kids out there who seem to be able to text without even looking at the screen – feel the same way.  Which was why I got some funny looks a few weeks back when I told friends that I was going to Ghana to help teach the farmers in our Esoko RCT how to send and receive a text message.

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In African agriculture, information is power

This post originally appeared as part of National Geographic’s Digital Diversity Series.

By Sarah Bartlett, Director of Communications and Research at Esoko

Standing in the heart of his pineapple farm in the Central Region of Ghana, Ali Morrison, gripping two mobile phones, tells the story of his most recent sale. Traders came to him offering just .20 Ghana cedis for each pineapple. That’s about 13 US cents. This time around he and his business partner, Isaac Assan, had their mobiles on hand and did a quick SMS price request to Esoko. He sent in the word “pineapple”. He received a list of prices covering the major markets in Ghana.

In the past farmers like Ali and Isaac have had no choice but to blindly accept the prices offered by traders. But the recent and sudden ability to refer to current prices across the country disrupts that whole dynamic. It gives farmers confidence that they didn’t have before, and it takes away the opportunity for traders to lie about prices in faraway markets. Knowing the trader would resell in the capital city’s market for .80 cedis each, Ali wouldn’t budge until he got .40 cedis. He doubled his profits that week, making 400 Ghana cedis instead of 200. That’s US$165 more. And just for the price of a text message.

It’s only until you hear these stories that you can actually wrap your head around the information deficit in rural areas across Africa. Just think for a moment about the amount of information you have at your fingertips everyday. Now slowly take sources out of the mix. Newspapers, magazines, out. Email? Gone. TV vanishes. Both Internet and smartphones disappear. You’re basically left with your neighbors, the radio, and that simple phone. Now imagine trying to make a sale.

Ali Morrison at work on his pineapple farm in the Central Region of Ghana.

Ali Morrison at work on his pineapple farm in the Central Region of Ghana.

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MIS Practitioners: Don’t Be Defined by Our History

Brought to us by Mark Davies – market information obsessed anthropologist & technologist (and incidentally the founder/CEO of Esoko).

mark_daviesRecently at a UNECA workshop in Addis I was challenged by Vincent Fautrel of CTA (the Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU) about Esoko’s strategy. I had been talking about the new products and services that we were planning to introduce to serve businesses and organizations, and Vincent wondered whether or not Esoko would continue to serve the needs of smallholder farmers. It’s a valid question. The reason I think it’s worth writing about here is because I think buried within that question are key issues about market demand, product vision and the evolution of MIS, so I wanted to pull out a few threads and pick them up here.

Vincent was also surprised to hear me talk about this as an ‘industry’, and questioned the validity of that term. But I’m convinced more than ever that there is an industry of information products serving agricultural communities expanding quickly in Africa. It’s exciting, confusing and we’ve got very few points of reference to guide us as we navigate through this period of innovation and disruption.

So why does the community still remain so poorly documented, and so clearly misunderstood? Even by those of us practicing within it? I would suggest there are two areas that are confusing us and we need to think big about both: history and technology.

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Why Traders are Not Evil

cosmasMy name is Cosmas Kombat, and over the past 3 months I have been researching Market Information Systems (MIS), this particular one funded by GiZ/Market Oriented Agricultural Programme (MOAP) in partnership with Esoko to support maize traders in the Techiman market in Ghana. I wanted to share my new-found perspective on the relationship between traders and farmers.

Market Information Systems, over the past years, have been very useful in supporting businesses and value chains. But when we talk about MIS helping individuals, it is always targeted to small scale farmers. This of course makes sense, considering the information asymmetry that we always talk about–traders have more information than farmers, and they take advantage of that fact. But are we missing something? When I started the feasibility study on Techiman Maize Traders Cooperative Society, even I was a bit reluctant and not sure how traders could be supported with price and market information—especially to the detriment of farmers who are already disadvantaged.

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The Nitty Gritty on Enumeration

andrewI’m Andrew Kpeleku, the Enumeration Manager at Esoko Ghana. That’s me on the right, with our Techiman Enumerator, Sampson Aiyedum. Our department is responsible for the collection, upload and validation of data (prices, offers and profiles) from 31 markets across Ghana. 

I spend many days in our office in Accra approving data and managing our enumerators, but I also get to go on market visits to see our enumerators throughout the year, and I’ve learned a lot over the years. Here are my top 6 enumeration tips for anyone wanting to collect data from the field:

1) Do basic research on marketsboat

Before markets are set up, it’s prudent to find out the real distance to each market as well as the means to get there. Though the most common means to market areas is by road, water bodies might come one’s way (see my photo of the ferry I have to take to reach one of our markets here). Basic research helps managers plan and budget appropriately.

2) Hire the right people 

The importance of accurate data collection must always guide managers in hiring. Experience has shown us here that part-time teachers are very well suited for enumeration jobs in the markets, as they tend to be more responsible and can also easily gain trust from market traders.

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