In the past week, I’ve been working with the Farmerline team on how we can take the next steps to expand while in the middle of a pilot (and beginning another). Farmerline plays an integral role in getting stakeholders the information they need to better manage crops, reach markets to sell those crops, and appropriate market prices for inputs and outputs. One of the toughest things I am constantly thinking about is what will be able to prove our business model. Right now, they have had strong interest from non-profits with large groups of beneficiaries, but the hope is that farmers would be able to pay for the service to sustain business. While all its value-added services are extremely important in the process of getting vital information to farmers in Ghana, what do farmers demand the most? Right now, they need information from non-profits and government to reach the market and manage crops. But what services do they demand where the net benefit of Agro-Calls and Call-Ins is positive for their growth? At this expansion phase, we know we have to take advantage of growth at the right time and make decisions quickly, all of which is difficult while in the middle of the pilots.
The uniqueness of Farmerline is a combination of ease of use, wide applicability and its specific focus on small shareholder farmers. At a glance, this seems like a win-win for so many organizations working with differing cultures, languages, and access to a mobile phone. I’ve learned that in Ghana, the country in which they operate, researchers have cited up to 91% of the target population for mobile use is saturated. The vast use of mobile phones has seen an explosion of apps targeted at solving deeply entrenched social issues, but the new space has created what one article from SSI calls “pilotitis” (Khan & Joseph, 2013). Writers Khan and Joseph highlight the need to move beyond the “conceptualizing and testing phase” in order to “catalyze systemic change” (Khan & Joseph 2013). This “innovation cult” drives inventors to seek new solutions to endemic problems, which is inherently good, but ultimately change needs execution to scale. Even though the founders developed this technology as they themselves lived and worked on smallholder farmers, wide adoption is still key to success.
One of the suggestion the authors recommend is “linking pilot approval phases to the solving of associated executional demands” (Khan & Joseph, 2013). For us, each hypothesis Farmerline posits during its pilot can have a decision-making step once it is proved or contradicted. That way, we can hopefully take advantage of quickly moving opportunities and adapt the product to how farmers and stakeholders best need it. One of the benefits of having a widely applicable technology is that during the pilot phase, Farmerline will be able to test which of the umbrella options in its technology are most beneficial. For non-profits seeking monitoring and evaluation technologies, the Agro-Polls technology is tailored to their needs to compute statistics and qualitative research. But in testing the buying power of individual farmers or farmer-based groups, Farmerline can understand if calling in a hotline or receiving weekly/monthly subscribed updates is worth paying for to help them increase yield and reach access to market. As we work to scale the current services, we focus on these needs.
As I think about the BCR tool in relation to how Farmerline enhances monitoring and evaluation, it becomes tricky. We are currently facilitating better M&E for nonprofits with our real-time dashboards that come with polling systems. Real-time data collection and analysis is possible for non-profits. The key is to make the product sticky enough so that when the pilot ends with a non-profit, its beneficiaries will realize its benefits. The flexibility of the pay-as-you-go platform creates affordability for low-income farmers, and allows nucleus farmers to regularly send updates to the hundreds of smaller farmers they support. After testing the nucleus farmers’ receptiveness to the service, Farmerline could then develop in-house M&E tools that measure farmers’ increases in yields and productivity since the time they have been using their ICT. At this pilot stage, developing potential impact metrics to put in place later on will test M&E capabilities. As an ICT organization, Farmerline addresses very specific pain points along the agricultural value chain; however, quantifiable impact is more indirect as it allows faster communication and facilitates better management practices among stakeholders. Providing in-house workshops on BMPs is one example of how direct impact can potentially be linked to Farmerline’s services.