Information and communication technologies

International Year of Family Farming

Stories from the ground

Mobile at last : Caribbean connections – marketing via mobile phone

Mobile at last : Caribbean connections – marketing via mobile phone

In the small village of Massey and Lauders, situated on the windward side of the island of St. Vincent, farmer Audrey Walters-Butler sends a text message to the Eastern Caribbean Trading and Agriculture Development Organization (ECTAD) to fulfil an order for dasheen and tannia, as requested by a buyer from the UK.

Audrey, her husband and their son and daughter run their farm as a family. Traditionally, the farm produced bananas, benefiting from the preferential trade agreement for banana exports that the Caribbean held with the European Union. However, with the advent of the World Trade Organisation and the concept of free trade, this advantage all but vanished and the market for bananas collapsed. So now the family grows roots and tubers, benefiting from an increasing international demand for dasheen (taro), sweet potatoes, yams, tannia, edoes, and a number of other vegetables.

"From when I was young, everyone was involved in agriculture. I come from a family of nine, where my parents were both farmers and we, their children, assisted in whatever we could before and after school, but more so during the vacation period," explains Audrey. "Now we have our own families and we continue the farming tradition, but our children only help on the farm during the school holidays."

Steps toward a sustainable livelihood

Although Audrey, like many islanders, is continuing the traditional agricultural lifestyle and depending on the sector for a living, several changes had to be undertaken in order to secure an international market for their produce. These included a change in the mindset of farmers to raise their standards of production through the adoption of good agricultural practices, meeting sanitary requirements, and introducing new procedures for the safe packaging of products. With the help of ECTAD, small-scale packing houses have been set up where produce is washed, cleaned, treated with a safe application of fungicide and finally packaged according to weight and size for export.
Through export of their products, farmers gain a fair price to meet their production costs and income needs. And, as a result of ECTAD's partnership with the Caribbean Farmers' Network, CaFAN, hundreds of small family farmers in Grenada, Guyana and other Caribbean nations are also benefiting.

ICT usage is a step forward

Key to ECTAD's approach with family farmers is timely and effective communication, which is achieved through the use of mobile phones. "The skills required to use a mobile phone are quite necessary for communication, and it enhances our operation. When an order is given from a buyer for certain produce to go to the UK, all information is relayed by mobile phone to the farmers, so walking to the farmer to tell them what is needed is a thing of the past. We have access to modern communication so we can access timely market information," says Audrey. ECTAD officers call the farmers on their mobile phones and place orders for the type of produce and quantity needed. The programme is beneficial both economically and socially for scores of small and medium-scale family farmers because they have a guaranteed market for their produce, which is often their main source of income, and are able to communicate with each other as well as with ECTAD.

Clearing the pathway

Given the success and transparency of the programme, Audrey and her family are indeed grateful; however, there is room for improvement. One of the major challenges is that producers must wait, sometimes for as long as a month, to be paid for their produce. This is very difficult for families, which have many day-to-day expenses that need to be covered. Given the mountainous nature of the island, which makes cultivation difficult and exhausting, the long-standing problem of farm labour is also an issue. With the young members of the family preoccupied with securing an education, and extended family members managing their own farms, Audrey has to hire four labourers who work 3 days a week to tend to the farm, which is costly. Without timely payment for produce the workers cannot be remunerated, and without workers the crops cannot be planted, maintained or harvested on time. Regardless of these problems, Audrey's outlook is positive. "The future for the family farm is quite bright and with the innovation of ICTs, young people will be more interested in carrying on the tradition. Because of the hilly terrain, it is difficult to use machines or tractors in some areas; hence some young people will not be so interested due to manual labour. But at some point maybe technology can help to overcome this." A first step has been the use of mobile phones. Audrey and many other farmers have learned to use this technology for the sake of progress and their livelihoods. Such action dispels the notion that farmers are resistant to the adoption of technology. The next step lies in the introduction of mobile finance services. With the use of smart phones, payments can be made instantaneously. "If we can have such services in the rural areas this would be excellent," Audrey enthuses.

By Keron Bascombe

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M. Benjamin Addom
Programme Coordinator – ICT4D
Tel: +31 (0) 317 467109 (direct) | Fax: +31 (0) 317 460067 |

M. Ken Lohento
Programme Coordinator – ICT4D
Tel: +31 (0) 317 467102 (direct) | Fax: +31 (0) 317 460067 |