30 years

MIS - Information is power

Mark Davies is the founder and chief executive officer of longstanding CTA partner Esoko, a pioneering market information supplier that allows farmers, traders, businesses and government to exchange critical commercial information via mobile phones. Originally developed in Ghana and now used in 12 African countries, Esoko won the UN's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) award in 2009. Davies has been closely involved in the research project on MIS in Africa conducted by CTA and partners and attended the workshops in Montpellier and Bamako as part of the initiative

In March 2014, Esoko launched the First Farmer helpline, a call centre available in twelve local languages to answer questions from producers on farming and price issues. In an interview, Davies talks about the importance of market price and other information, as well as CTA's role in improving the services for market actors.

Why is it so important to provide access to market information, and who benefits?

ANSWER: It's important, because that's what the farmers are asking for. There is an information asymmetry, where some players have some type of market information and most of the farmers don't. And that can lead to further economic exploitation. So we think information is power, that with information the farmers can negotiate better prices for their products, and in general, we think that more transparent markets benefit everybody.

Q: How does it benefit other players in the agricultural market sector?

A: We have seen traders, who would traditionally, you might think, be the losers, also stating that more transparent markets help them – because in some cases, farmers might be convinced that the market prices are even higher than they really are. So the distribution of information does seem to be beneficial, and in the very latest research we have found that the traders generally recalibrate the prices they are offering for farmers, and then offer those even to the farmers who are not benefiting from the market price information itself.

Q: Are there any figures that show the benefits of market information services to farmers?

A: Initial studies from CIRAD and NYU (New York University) showed a 9-10 per cent improvement in revenue. Since then, they've concluded the research, and they now think the impact is more like 25 to 30 per cent on profits. That study was on one thousand farmers in the Volta region of Ghana for market prices only. It seems that the impact was much higher than they had expected, and that the benefits also applied to those farmers who were suffering an information deficit – they were getting price benefits even though they didn't know what market prices were.

Q: What was the idea behind the helpline for call centres that Esoko launched earlier this year?

A: We launched the call centre in response to what we were hearing from the farmers. There are two key things that we've learned from the farmers. One is that market prices are not enough. So you have got to have a range of information services that you deliver to farmers, and this extends from market prices to weather, agricultural advice, and who's buying and selling. The other thing that farmers were asking for was the ability to call and speak to somebody. So we launched a small call centre pilot to understand what kind of questions they would ask, and whether we had the skills and capacity to deliver a service like that. We haven't done any impact studies yet. It does clearly help, but we're not able to quantify that at this stage.

Q: To what extent has CTA's work on MIS benefited you in terms of knowledge and experience sharing?

A: I think the most important aspect is to network with other stakeholders within this sector, to understand some of their models and approaches, to share our own, and to link potential collaborations across projects. I think that this is the critical add that this initiative has provided.

Q: How do you see CTA's role in the next couple of years in supporting the MIS sector?

A: I think CTA should take a leading role in redefining what MIS means. I still think people are a little bit stuck on market price information. The industry has moved a lot further than that. We're now covering a range of information services and products. Much of the information comes from industry players – input dealers, outgrower schemes – and the content definition itself has expanded, into extension advice and day-to-day logistical information. What we're finding with new technology is that you can advise farmers of where inputs are available, whether the rain is going to fall today and who's buying at what price. So the very nature of market information systems has changed in the last 4 years. And I think CTA's role is to help all the participants and stakeholders, including the donors, to understand what the opportunity is, to scope that opportunity and to help ensure that development resources are most efficiently applied to the sector.