Wednesday February 17 2016

Farmers reduce losses, avoid middlemen with smartphones

By EDGAR R. BATTE

Every day, Halid Mutebi wakes up to an exciting experience. He is a village agent whose job is to profile farmers in Buwunga Sub-county, Manafwa District in eastern Uganda.
He is grateful that for every farmer whose information he captures or updates, he earns Shs5,000.
There are about 200 farmers he has to reach as village agent. Mutebi is one of 15 agents in Manafwa. Maize and beans are the main crops grown in this part of the country.
In the data he collects, he captures the location of the farmers’ gardens using Global Positioning System, their names, crops grown, agronomic practices such as spacing of crops, weather forecasts, market prices, financial services such as savings, transactions and credit and crop insurance.
He trains farmers on these smart phones, which have been provided to him and the farmers by Akorion.

Increase productivity
Akorion, which means farmers in Ateso—a language spoken further east of Manafwa—is also the name of a project that works with local communities to provide up-to-date agricultural information.
Through village agents like Mutebi, it teaches farmers good farming practices via mobile technology, which can be used to increase productivity and competitiveness of smallholder farmers.
Akorion was inspired by a national youth event, which was organised by Usaid Uganda in September 2014. Five youth-led ICT companies banded together to form a limited liability company, Akorion.

The five independent companies consist of Lacel Technologies, W3bfuse Limited, Comquest Projects, Cites Uganda Limited and Suben Investments.
Mutebi explains that farmers’ digital profiling is characterised by real-time updates and monitoring of farmers’ activities from which they are linked to different financial institutions, genuine agro-input suppliers, insurance companies as well as markets and exporters.

“The introduction of Information Communication Technology [ICT] has helped farmers save money they would otherwise lose to middlemen who are not straight,” Mutebi adds.
When Musa Kakaire, a farmer in Nankoma Sub-county, held a smart phone for the first time, he was excited about holding a fancy phone. Subsequently, he was taught how he could do a lot more with it.
Another farmer Denis Kaziba, who doubles as a village agent, taught him how to use the smart phone.
By using the phone, Kakaire can find out about prevailing market prices in Jinja, Mbale and Busia.

“With our smart phones we cannot be cheated anymore. Previously, middlemen came to buy our produce at low prices because we did not know about the prevailing market prices. Today, we get all this information thanks to Akorion, which does the market surveys and then passes on the information to us,” he notes.
Stephen Soyi, another village agent, observes that middlemen move about in villages with weighing scales, which are tampered with. “They buy farmers’ cheaply. For example, a farmer will be paid for 50 kilogrammes whereas the middleman has made off with 80 kilogrammes,” Soyi explains.

Help in decision making
Middlemen could have had a chance to take advantage of farmers in their time of need but they have a fall-back option in Bugiri Agribusiness and Institutions Development Association (Baida), which brings together 2,000 farmers in the eastern region.
Rather than sell his produce cheaply, Kaziba says that when he needs money urgently, he will go to the association and borrow money. He can deposit his produce as surety, and it is kept by the association until the market prices are favourable. He can then sell and make a good profit.

The association manager, Moses Makaka, says farmers and agents get text messages with prevailing market prices twice a week. This helps them in making a decision on where to sell and how much they can expect from selling their produce in a specific market.
“At that point, I can call or tell the manager, Makaka, to sell the produce. This is better than selling to a middleman,” Kaziba explains.
Through book-keeping at Baida, farmers like Kaziba have their records captured.

Asiba Mugoya is one of the women who has benefitted from such an arrangement. “I deposited two bags of maize because I needed money. The moisture was low, at about eight per cent, and Makaka asked me to spread the maize out on a tarpaulin so that it could dry after which it can be stored,” she narrates as she spreads out the maize. She needed the money to buy produce she could sell at a profit in the weekly markets to enable her fend for her family.

Silver Oboth, another village agent, explains that using smart phones they have been able to capture short profiles of farmers and get the GPS of their gardens.
He adds that mapping and profiling of farms and farmers has enabled them access loans because they can use Village Agents as references in banks.

Work in partnership
The smart phones have crop information regarding pests and diseases and they can ably advise farmers on what to do in case their crops are attacked by pests of diseases.
Farmer like Mugoya can also have their soil tested. Robert Wamutinyi, a village agent at Bukusu Area Cooperative Enterprise, in Manafwa, explains that Akorion trained him and provided Bukusu with equipment to collect soil samples from farmers for testing.
Testing the soil helps determine the available important nutrients in the soil. The sample is characterised after micro- and macro- soil analysis.
Wamutinyi says that they charge Shs20,000 per acre, of which he earns a commission. After testing the soils, the farmers will be looking out for good seeds.

Akorion works in partnership with Usaid-funded Feed the Future’s Commodity Production and Marketing Activity (FtF/CPMA).
It is a five-year initiative; it will cover the period 2013-2018, and is being implemented in 34 focus districts.
Lilliane Byarugaba, a communications manager at FtF/CPMA, explains that the project’s effort aims at achieving a sustainable increase in smallholder production and marketing of high-quality maize, beans and coffee.

Farmers and agents have requested for phones with better screen display. But it will not be only the phone display that FtF will have to deal with.
There is climate change which continues to bother farmers, of course with many more challenges. However, the use of ICT to teach farmers better agro practices and giving them updates on market prices is a step in the right direction.

rbatte@ug.nationmedia.com

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