Phone Farming: How SMS is changing agriculture in Ghana

farmer_1Just three years ago, Abdul Rahman Takoro couldn’t afford to send all his eight children to school. Several dropped out, while he struggled to pay the fees for the rest.

Takoro tried to work as a bicycle repairer, after the frustration of seeing his farm fail. Without any education or resources on farming, Takoro was losing money.

“I could invest about GHC200 into my 9 acre farm and I would lose all of it,” Takoro said, speaking in Dagbani.
“I have suffered in this world,” he said. “I could not see any progress in my life.”

But Takoro found a lot of hope in a simple SMS technology.  A private communication company, Esoko, is helping farmers like Takoro access tips on weather, better farming methods and market prices.

Currently the only way most farmers get such information is through extension officers. The government employees meet with farmers to provide information, but they barely reach a quarter of the total number of farmers in Ghana. As well, according to information from Ghana’s Finance Ministry, about 70 per cent of extension officers will retire from active service in the next three years.

The Minister for Food and Agriculture Clement Kofi Humado said that farmers can face large challenges.

“The Ministry has taken a serious view of market access to the extent that last year and this year for example small holder farmers particularly in Brong Ahafo, Upper East and Upper West regions have produced a lot of grains and are unable to send them to the market,” he said.

The agricultural industry in Ghana has been struggling as farmers lack education and resources to grow their yields meet demands and subsist under rising prices. A decade ago, agriculture contributed 40 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to the country’s agricultural ministry. Now, it’s only 27 per cent.

Ali Moris owned a 30-acre pineapple farm in Esuehyia in the Central Region. It’s about 100 kilometres from Accra.
“I spent averagely about GHC2,500 on it but the yield was nothing to write home about,” he said. “I used all my money to high labourers to work on it, but it was obvious we were wasting our time.”

Without pricing information from extension officers or through text messages from companies like Esoko, farmers are often unaware of selling prices on the market. Sometimes middle men or women dictate their own price to the farmers.

The farmers usually accept the meager offers – below the cost of production – leaving them poorer.

“We try to explain to them why we want to pay a particular price for the produce we want to buy from them,” said Hawa Seidu, who acts as a middle woman in Aframso in the Ashanti Region. “Because we hire vehicles to the villages and labour cost to load the produce onto the vehicles.”

Agriculture Minister Humado said the key issue is market price. “That is, a database farmers can easily link into to know the price of, for example, maize in this or that market, or outside Ghana in the regional markets like Bamako in Mali,” he said.

Humado said the government is committing funding to the e-extension programme, which, among other things, will provide electronic extension services to farmers.

One of those projects will be Esoko’s informational text messages.

Esoko has representatives who visit about 50 different markets in the various regions each day and compile the going price of foods. They relay that information to the Esoko headquarters, where it is packaged into simple and comprehensive SMS and distributed to the farmers and traders who are also subscribed on the platform. Farmers also receive information on weather patterns, when to plough their land, when to sow, apply fertilizer, check weeds and harvest.

Takoro is one of about 120,000 farmers in the Northern Region making use of the information from Esoko. He’s been receiving the SMS messages for two years.

“What we gain from Esoko is immeasurable,” he said. “They alert us with prices in markets nationwide, tell me whatever I produce I can send it there to sell and get interest. They also help us with weather forecasts too. I can access my inbox now and you will see the prices from various markets now: yellow maize Agbogbloshie – 70 Cedis for 100kg, Bawle market 60 Cedis for 100kg, Sorghum in Agbogbloshie 160 per bag.”

Takoro says with the information he can now decide whether to send his produce to the market for sale or sell it to middle men and women, considering which of the options will make him get more money.

Ousman Gyasi, a senior agricultural economist with the World Bank, said the project is appealing due to its simple approach.

“It creates the platform for both players, upstream and downstream in innovation platforms that are simple, you know just by either text messaging or voicing you can reach farmers and all the actors in the agricultural value chain,” he said.

“If the farmer has only one acre of land and he has a demand to supply fifteen tones of cassava, he can go for a technology that can give him fifteen tones per acre instead of doing eight tones which means he has to crop twice.”

Several NGOs, such as the Advance Project, have already covered Esoko’s costs for sending the information to the farmers.

Collins Kyei Boafo, regional coordinator for the Northern Region for the Advance Project, said the project is making progress.

“On a scale of one to ten, we have achieved about seven. We wanted to empower these peasant farmers to the extent that they could bargain on very good prices at least to motivate them to cultivate more,” he said. “We do periodic surveys at least once in every three months to find out how this is benefiting the farmers and the last one we did in May and June the stories that came out were so impressive.”

Boafo added that they are working to increase the ways in which the information is relayed to all farmers – even those who aren’t directly receiving the SMS messages.

“Those who receive the text messages have been trained on how to also transmit the information to the other members in their groups. Some of them display the prices on their notice boards where they have their weekly meetings and others also share with their peer farmers,” he said.

Takoro has put together a cooperative group, where he manages over 1,500 out-grower farmers in about nine districts in the northern region of Ghana. Takoro disseminates the information he gets through Esoko to these farmers. Many have also seen massive improvement in their yields.

Takoro lives in a five bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Tamale. He owns four more houses in the area that he rents out.

The farmer who once struggled to send all his children to school now owns four tractors and harvesters, trucks and motorbikes that help him to farm. He is currently cultivating rice on his new 230 acre farm -about the size of 20 standard football pitches – in Dabonkuraa in the Central Gonja District. He is also cultivating a 70 acre maize farm and rearing livestock.

Takoro said he has plans to expand his farm, and is proud that he is now making enough money for all his children to attend school.

“I have told them to concentrate on the school because I have resources to fund them now,” he said. “Nonetheless when they grow up if they want to farm, fine, but one of them wants to be a doctor, another a nurse and another a soldier. I am very happy.”

By Nana Boakye-Yiadom
This story was produced with the support of the Africa Story Challenge and the African Media Initiative

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