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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What’s voice got to do with it?

esoko call centerOur Farmer Helpline team in Accra has been answering calls for six months now. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, you may be wondering what a company known for their SMS based platform is doing operating a call center. The short answer is this: we’re still big believers in the power of SMS to exchange information in rural areas, but we increasingly see helplines as a compliment to any SMS service. Here’s why voice plays an important role:

1) Farmers are struggling with using ever-more sophisticated seeds, pesticides and fertilizers; 2) Farmers depend on the rains for theirs livelihoods, and are trying to manage an increasingly unpredictable weather cycle; 3) Public extension services are struggling to keep up, with each officer in Ghana serving as many as 3,000 farmers; and 4) illiterate and semi-literate farmers, often women, need an easy to access and consistent source of information too.

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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.

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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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.

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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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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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Impact in 2010 – a snapshot

jonathanJonathan Abudu, Salaga, Ghana

Jonathan cultivates yam tubers. When a buyer came to his small community quoting a very low price, Jonathon sent an SMS price request into Esoko. Realizing the prices in Accra were far higher, and that even paying transport he would make much more for his tubers if he sent them himself, he did just that. His 300 tubers, sold in Accra, gave him 104 extra Ghana cedis than what he would have made if he sold close to his farm. He says that using Esoko brings him confidence selling that he has never experienced before.
chiefChief Saaka Mahama, Salaga, Ghana

Chief Saaka Mahama, a village chief from Northern Ghana, has been negotiating better deals for his harvests using Esoko price alerts. He recently refused to sell to a buyer who came to his village to buy cashews–citing his Esoko SMS message about the current price in Yendi market, Chief sent him away empty handed. One week later, the buyer returned and bought at Chief’s price, giving Chief an extra 100 cedis (70 USD).

 

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Esoko (and Hajia Talhatu Kudi) on CNN!

It’s easy to see why Hajia Talhatu was given a new last name by friends and co-workers in Accra—Kudi, the Hausa word meaning money. Hajia Talhatu Kudi started working in Nima market with her mother when she was just 11 years old; she later took over the business and has since grown it considerably, putting her boundless energy to work—Hajia is proud to say that she now buys and sells in metric tonnes what her mother began buying and selling in kilos so many years ago. Hajia deals mainly in cowpea, wheat, sesame and millet, travelling bi-weekly to Northern Ghana to purchase in bulk from producers, then hiring transporters to bring the goods down to Accra. She usually works with the same set of producers and traders, but says that she still needs to take these frequent journeys north to ensure that the goods meet her quality standards. Hajia says that finding new contacts and markets is something she’s always interested in doing, but that she needs capital to be able to grow her business outside of her regular contacts with whom she has mutual trust and works with on a credit basis. Hajia has five children, and is putting them through school with the money she earns as a trader in Nima. She shared her thoughts on TradeNet, as well as her infectious spirit, with CNN’s Inside Africa a few months ago.