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Ugandan farmers look to the future with smartphone and satellite technology

June 29, 2016

A consortium led by CTA is working to develop and market a bundle of agricultural information products through SMS and smartphone apps to enable Ugandan farmers to access satellite-based crop advice. The project, entitled the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag Enabled Information Service (MUIIS), will essentially provide agricultural extension advisory services to farmers by pulling all the right components together - the data, the knowledge and the information - through the appropriate technologies. But unlike traditional extension projects, MUIIS will be much more wide-reaching, with information and advice available at the swipe of a screen.

Farmers who subscribe to the mobile phone service will receive low-cost SMS alerts offering agricultural extension advice. This will include daily weather forecasts, early warnings of drought, tips on how to be climate smart, and advice on crop cultivation. Subscribers will also be able to access a farmer helpdesk and have the opportunity to take out affordable crop insurance to protect against the effects of climate change.

CTA and partners believe that this ICT product will provide a more level playing field when it comes to accessing information. According to the Uganda webpage of the NGO Farm Africa, 84% of Uganda’s 39 million people live in rural areas. So, mobile phone technology is an ideal way of connecting these farming communities with the satellite data and advice they need to improve yields and farm efficiency. 

Combining public and private sector expertise

The MUIIS consortium plays to the strengths of a wide range of partners. Three of these are from the private sector: the eLEAF Competence Center (eLEAF), EARS Earth Environment Monitoring (EARS-E2M), and aWhere Inc. These partners are in charge of developing a robust ICT product. They bring creativity and innovation to the project, making sure that the product is marketable in the long term – beyond the lifetime of donor support.

The private sector companies work closely with CTA, AGRA, the East African Farmers' Federation (EAFF), and Mercy Corps Uganda. CTA, EAFF and AGRA help make sense of the satellite data by providing data from farms on the ground. At the same time, EAFF and Mercy Corps make sure that the end product is suitable for the farming communities with which they work. The project as a whole, which runs from 2015 to 2018, is subsidised by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) through the Geodata for Agriculture and Water Facility (G4AW) of the Netherlands Space Office (NSO).

Consortium Partners MUIISPartners of the MUIIS consortium, and guest of honour Mike Sebalu MP, at the project launch in Kampala, October 2015.

Putting farmers in control

What really distinguishes MUIIS from similar projects is that the ICT product will ultimately be owned and marketed by farmers themselves. According to Dr Benjamin Kwasi Addom, ICT4D Programme Coordinator at CTA, "So far, most ICT4Ag services have been provided by the private sector, NGOs, research institutes or government, but for this project, the goal is for farmers' organisations to eventually take on the role of ICT service providers – in this case the Uganda EAFF."

Dr Addom adds that "From our experience, farmers' organisations are better tuned into the information needs of their members. We believe farmers trust and prefer to get agricultural information from other farmers rather than from external service providers – the reliability of the content in this case will be guaranteed through remote sensing technology (satellites)."

As well as marketing ICT services, farmers also provide training to other farmers in how to use the MUIIS apps. The project is currently establishing a network of around 200 farmers who will be equipped with smartphones. This network of 'ground agents' will then train other farmers in the community, handle the marketing and sale of MUIIS apps, and provide content that cannot be delivered through the users' handsets. CTA and the project partners envisage that, through this training network, more than 350,000 maize, soya bean and sesame farmers (35% of these women) will be able to access satellite-based crop advice during the three-year project period.

Guest of Honor Signing MUIISGuest of honour Mike Sebalu MP signs the MUIIS plaque at the project launch in October 2015.

Working through cooperatives

The MUIIS consortium is keen to ensure that access to ICT services is equitable. For this reason, subscription to the bundled information products will be strictly handled through cooperatives and similar groups. These groups will also provide farmers with access to loans for crop production and processing activities.

"We are targeting 350,000 farmers across four regions in Uganda with a unique service that we believe will lead to improved user efficiency of inputs including fertiliser, seeds and pesticides. The farmers we are reaching are part of the Ugandan National Farmers' Federation (UNFFE) and Ugandan Cooperative Alliance (UCA), which sum four million farmers organised in 500 cooperatives" says Dr Addom. "We believe there will be a long-term impact through decreased dependence on social assistance and improved sustainability in food production," he adds.

Bringing benefits to farmers

CTA and consortium partners envisage that the MUIIS project will help farmers improve the timing and application of their farming practices. These improvements, they anticipate, will lead to a 25% increase in the yields of food crops, a 20% increase in farmers' incomes, a 10% increase in the effective use of inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, and a 10% increase in the risk of using such inputs.

As well as these tangible benefits, the project will also empower smallholder farmers, bringing them to the fore of Ugandan society. At the launch of the MUIIS programme, Hon. Mike Sebalu, Member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), said "Most often we don't acknowledge the role of farmers. This initiative will go a long way in defining the role of small-scale farmers who are usually neglected in the social structure."

Stephen Muchiri, Chief Executive Officer of EAFF, argued that "through the use of innovative mobile technology platforms, these farmers will form sustainable public-private-producer-partnerships along priority value chains that will assist them in accessing demand-based, weather-based information, to make better production decisions that will contribute to their participation in national and regional markets, thereby improving their food security and income levels."

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