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.

Continue reading

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? 

PA
: 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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Local Needs, Local Development

By Kwesi Acquah, Esoko Communications Officer

team esoko

Esoko, 2011, Accra.

The mere mention of technology brings to mind names like Berlin, Singapore, Basel, Bangalore and the famous Silicon Valley, to name but a few. Most of the world’s best technologies were conceived and brought forth in one of these hubs, and quite obviously the consumption of these technologies has also not been limited to only these areas or the countries in which they were developed.

Developing countries like Ghana have benefited immensely from technology transfer from these tech hubs. We use technology to help organize our lives, have fun, be inspired, communicate, and it has become a definitive part of life in our cities.  In rural communities, mobile rates are rising so quickly that no one can keep track. Without even needing statistics, the fact that most of our grandmothers have called us on a mobile phone tells the story of change.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

DIY: Bernard’s Commodity Index

otabilHi, my name is Bernard Otabil, and I led the launch of the first ever agricultural commodity index in Ghana. It’s known as the Esoko Ghana Commodity Index (EGCI), and it’s a market price index composed of data on physical commodities. The index tracks prices at two levels: the Esoko Ghana Commodity Index-Retail (EGCI-R) and the Esoko Ghana Commodity Index-Wholesale (EGCI-W). I wanted to share a bit about how to create a commodity index that informs the general public, as well as policy makers, about market trends in your country.

1) First, determine which markets and commodities should be used in the construction of the index. Consider the geographic importance of the markets, the size and the commodities traded in them. Also consider the importance of the commodities to be used, bearing in mind that staple foods or commodities that form a large component of the country’s consumer price index are the most interesting.

2) So now, you need market prices–how are you going to gather prices from these markets? Setup an enumeration process and procedures that ensure price collection on a regular basis, and on time. At Esoko we have trained enumerators who cover 34 markets in the country, collecting prices regularly and feeding them on to our platform using their mobile phones. You may setup a private system like ours, or you may leverage other networks that already collect data. Just make sure it is good, and consistent.

Continue reading