Flexibility is a core feature of a CTA-led initiative linking small-scale farmers to satellite-based services that is helping them to improve crops yields and climate resilience in Uganda. As the programme moves into its third year, adjustments are being made based on feedback, first and foremost from the farmers.
Farmers have been central to the design of an innovative satellite-based advisory and extension service developed to help Ugandan smallholder producers achieve better harvests, greater climate resilience and stronger market linkages. So as the initiative moved forward it made perfect sense that these users should be consulted about the prototype service offered, and how they would like to see it adjusted. Just over two years after the launch of the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service (MUIIS), feedback from farmers is helping to shape a modified version of the original product, which offers a bundled package of weather alerts, farming tips and index-based insurance. The changes effected are in line with the business approach adopted from the outset, aimed at ensuring that the initiative is self-sustaining and continues long after the funding has ended.
Developed with the goal of addressing the current agricultural information gap for small-scale farmers in Uganda, MUIIS packages weather-based information generated by satellite and delivers it to farmers by mobile phone, in one of ten local languages. The information is linked to the farmers’ location and conditions, based on detailed profiles that include their GPS coordinates, soil type and inputs used. Farmers who sign up receive a customised package that includes weekly SMS crop related weather forecasts, agronomic advisories and index-based drought insurance.
Drawing the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA)’s long experience in promoting ICT solutions for smallholder farmers, the programme has attracted seed funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) Facility of the Netherlands Space Office. Six main partners, representing a mix of private and public sectors and each chosen for their expertise in the key areas of data, knowledge and information, are helping CTA to implement the scheme, which spans a range of value chains, including maize, soybeans, beans and sesame.
Lessons learned from farmers
From the beginning, financial sustainability has been an important objective for MUIIS, aimed at ensuring that the programme does not end when the three-year funding phase expires, in February 2019. In line with the business product development approach that has underpinned the initiative from the start, the minimum viable product prototype is currently being adjusted to ensure a closer fit with farmer requirements. This strategy, which will result in a full product being launched by the end of 2018, has taken account of survey responses from farmers questioned extensively about the original bundle, including the timeliness of messages and the extent to which these were helpful in improving crop management.
“We are trying to tweak the product so that it delivers more value to farmers, in ways that will make them want to subscribe to the service,” said Hanna Camp, client engagement manager at aWhere, an agricultural intelligence company that delivers data to MUIIS. “Acting on user feedback is extremely important and gives a huge advantage going into the market. It means you have an understanding of the gaps in your product, and what you need to work on.”
As a result of farmer feedback, message content is being fine-tuned to ensure that the SMS alerts incorporate information that will help subscribers understand that the weather advisories are location specific – and that they should therefore be acted on. Another change involves updating agronomic information supplied in the weekly 160-character SMS bulletin, so that it reflects the latest weather-based alerts, even if no actions can be recommended.
In the longer term, the team is working on farmer requests to include more advisories on pests and diseases, and to automate synchronisation of messages sent out at the start of the season with weather-based information according to locality. “We are now very confident that the service we are offering to farmers is worth paying for,” said Dr Benjamin Kwasi Addom, Programme Manager of MUIIS at CTA.
Attracting business buy-in
Although not specifically aimed at increasing adoption levels, the MUIIS team expects this to be a knock-on effect of product improvement. “With these changes, we hope that farmers who receive these messages, and act on them accordingly, will have better results than they did the previous seasons,” said Dr. Addom. “If that happens, farmers will start talking among themselves and we will get more subscribers.”
By offering a product that is more closely aligned with the needs of users, the service is also expected to increase the likelihood of attracting business investors, who may be interested in taking the initiative to the next level. Discussions are currently under way with several potential business partners, including Dutch financial service institution the Rabobank Foundation for a pilot credit scheme for farmers, and other institutions such as fertilizer companies and NGOs, interested in accessing the MUIIS database in order to provide services to farmers profiled there. Talks are also under way with the World Food Bank Uganda, the Ugandan subsidiary of a global company working to strengthen food value chains across Eastern Africa, which has asked to test the product.
One maize farmer is in no doubt about the value of the MUIIS service delivered so far. “The weather updates have enabled me to know when to plant. It was a problem predicting what crop would survive, given the uncertainty of weather conditions,” said Bbuule William, from Kyetume Village in Luwero District. “Last season, I successfully harvested maize from my farm due to the weather updates and advisory tips I received on my phone.”