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Delivering bundled digital products and services for climate-smart agriculture in Zimbabwe

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Real-time weather information and farming tips help producers to combat the effects of climate change

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In Zimbabwe, climate change is emerging as the most serious threat to agriculture. To address the challenge, a leading farmers’ organisation has teamed up with a private sector telecoms company to provide bundled climate-smart agriculture products and services to farmers.

The mobile technology solution, which delivers weather-based insurance, real-time, location-based weather information and farming tips via cellphone, is helping producers to combat the effects of climate change.

Zimbabwe is largely driven by an agrarian economy, with more than 80% of rural households depending on agriculture for their livelihoods. The country’s one rainfall season per year is critical for more than 70% of smallholders who depend on it. But rainfall patterns have become more erratic, uncertain and unpredictable, placing a strain on smallholder production systems. Smallholder have limited access to existing adaptation solutions or weather information that could help them cope with acute weather patterns and climate change, which in turn affects food security, nutrition and household incomes.

Two particular challenges currently prevent farmers from taking advantage of climate-smart agriculture solutions – limited uptake of available agricultural insurance services to mitigate against shocks, and poor access to real-time weather information to enable timely and effective decision-making.

Addressing low take-up rates

To date, limited numbers of smallholder farmers have taken up weather-based insurance (WBI) due to lack of awareness, understanding and affordability, poor commercial sustainability due to the low number of clients, and lack of a regulatory framework in Zimbabwe. Other obstacles to adoption of digital Weather Information Services (WIS) include lack of knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICTs), limited use of cellphones and other ICT gadgets as a source of climate information, and weak capacity to interpret climate information. Compounding the difficulties are poor alignment of information from different sources, insufficient measuring instruments to enable farmers to capture field data, inadequate digital content on indigenous knowledge systems, and lack of proper support structures and facilities.

The Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) has been helping its members combat climate change for nearly a decade. Since 2009, this predominantly smallholder-based organisation has implemented climate-smart agriculture projects, especially targeting upscaling of adoption among small-scale farmers.

More recently, ZFU has been working with Econet Wireless Zimbabwe to promote weather-based insurance and dissemination of farming tips and alerts through the ZFU EcoFarmer Combo programme. This ICT-based bundled service offers weather-based insurance, real-time, location-based weather information, and farming tips and funeral insurance cover at a cost of €1 per month, deducted from farmers’ mobile money wallets (EcoCash) on their cellphones.

ZFU and Econet Wireless Zimbabwe’s approach involves setting up multi-stakeholder partnerships and alliances to achieve large volumes, scale and sustainability. Working with ZFU, the private sector (Econet) is at the centre of the delivery mechanism for the bundled ICT solutions, ensuring sustainability.

Awareness-raising for farmers

A strong focus of the ZFU EcoFarmer Combo is farmer digital registration using cellphones, and since the solutions are relatively new to most smallholders, a key thrust of the approach is awareness-raising and mobilisation, through marketing and promotion. ZFU plays a critical role in ensuring uptake and long-term sustainability of the bundled solution, leveraging its existing membership, database and sub-national structures.

Experience in running the programme shows the need for further extension support to farmers when they receive weather information, SMS tips and alerts on livestock and maize on their cellphones. To achieve this, the project is facilitating monthly subscriptions to the Combo for 300 extension workers living in the 100 target wards, paying €1 per month on their behalf. This ensures that extension staff receive the same tips as those sent to the farmers. The extension workers each convene farmer meetings where they explain to the farmers the practical implications on crops and livestock production of the weather information, tips and alerts received. Generally, in Zimbabwe, an extension worker can reach out to 50-100 farmers during a single formal training meeting. So there is potential for the 300 extension workers to help 15,000 to 30,000 farmers increase productivity through CSA advice, assuming each holds at least one meeting.

The success and sustainability of the ZFU EcoFarmer Combo is based on a business model that creates a win-win situation for all participants. It is attractive to the private sector player, Econet Wireless, and farmers benefit through climate change awareness creation and resilience building. An important component planned for the future is to introduce mitigation measures, such as farmer training in woodlot management, and promotion of clean energy solutions, including biodigesters and solar technologies.

This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.

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