This feature story is an outcome of infoDev, a multi-donor program administered by the World Bank Group, with a focus on entrepreneurs in developing economies.
Companies like Hershey’s – one of the world’s largest chocolate producers – face several challenges when working with smallholder cocoa farmers. For example, Ghanaian farmers produce 20% of the world’s cocoa, and they speak any of the country’s 80 different languages. Hershey’s, an English-speaking organization, needs accurate information about the farmers’ expected yields but finds it difficult to survey the farmers they depend on. Cell phone use among farmers is high, but the language barrier and remoteness are difficult to overcome.
Sharing market data and interacting with rural farmers made easy
Farmerline has made interacting with rural farmers a lot easier. It has developed a platform that communicates with a network of 200,000 farmers in their native languages while collecting data. The platform provides farmers with valuable market data, while also enabling companies like Hershey’s to gather farm-level information.
Co-founder Alloysius Attah explains the basic premise of the product, “The tool is about communication. It provides farmers with services that helps them sell more food, anything from weather forecasts to market prices, in a way they understand and can use.” Farmerline’s system generates automated phone calls, and the “content and language is different depending on the country the farmer is in.” Attah elaborates, “The farmers simply pick up a call and listen to a message. It’s a powerful way to communicate timely and valuable information.”
The farmers’ interaction with the system generates data, Attah says: “how many pick up, how many listen to the whole message.” The system can also ask farmers numerical or multiple-choice questions. As Farmerline provides more valuable agricultural information, the number of farmers plugged into the system expands and the user-generated data grows. This is where Farmerline’s corporate and institutional partners come in.
The partners – which are food brands, development NGOs, and government agencies – want to reach farmers to collect data ranging from farm size and production capacity to development needs. With Farmerline’s messaging and data analytics platform, that information has become a lot easier to gather.
Greater number of farmers = better market access
Farmerline’s model for growth is reminiscent of what entrepreneur and investor Peter Theil describes as value-addition through the “network effect” in his book Zero to One. For partners, the value of Farmerline increases with each farmer it adds to the network. When adding partners, the company can generate more useful information and market access, making it an increasingly attractive service for farmers.
Since its founding in 2012, the company has added over 13 partners. In the last two years, it has more than doubled the number of employees, from 10 to 32, and its product is currently used in 10 countries: Ghana, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Benin, Mozambique and Cote d’Ivoire. In 2013, Alloysius Attah won infoDev’s mAgri Challenge and participated in the Mobile Startup Camp. He and co-founder Emmanuel Owusu Addai have won numerous awards and spoken about their work at the Social Capital Markets Conference and Mobile World Congress.
No bank account? No problem.
The next step for Farmerline is to expand its offerings to farmers with Paytime, a credit service available to the unbanked. “Unbanked people’s credit scores live in their communities,” Attah explains of the service. “When an aunt lends you money, she makes a credit decision in her head: How many farms do you have, what crops do you grow, are you likely to pay back? Paytime crowdsources all those data points from your local community, to generate a credit score and make available loan products that farmers normally can’t access.” He explains that “businesses and banks can now access brand-new markets: the unbanked.”
In the first pilot, nearly 70% of loan recipients – who had never received formal credit before – made on-time payments. The remaining recipients repaid the loan with only a little delay. Financial institutions are lining up to participate in the next pilot.
Key to success? Grow with revenue
The founders’ meticulous focus on innovation and constant improvements to the platform have made Farmerline a success. Quartz Africa reported that Farmerline has attracted more than 4.4 million Ghana cedi ($1 million) in investments and has been awarded 367,000 Ghana cedi ($83,750) for the King Baudouin African Development Prize. But in the end, the company’s main growth is driven by revenues.
Good news for African farmers and chocolate lovers alike.
infoDev’s Digital Entrepreneurship Program – which organized the aforementioned mAgri Challenge and Mobile Startup Camp – is sponsored by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, and Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DANIDA).