Mobile phones transform Malawi farmers
By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is still fascinated by the story of Sara Maunda, a Malawian village farmer who lives in Dowa, 38-kilometres away from Capital City Lilongwe, whose life was completely transformed when she embraced modern cellular communication technology.
During an opening ceremony of Umodzi Consulting –Esoko stakeholders’ forum in Lilongwe last week, agricultural officer for USAID Mathews Raboin once again referred to Maunda, whose life changed in June 2011 when she started using a cell phone to get prices for commodities.
In June 2011 a grain trader arrived at Sara’s gate offering her K30 per kilo for her shelled groundnuts, but she refused because she had by then received information the previous day that the price of groundnuts was K120 per kilogramme in Lilongwe
When she sold her groundnuts in Lilongwe, she had about K24, 000 (US$130) as profit while had she sold to the vendor, she could only make K4 500 (US$27).
Sara is one the farmers who benefitted from USAID/Malawi’s Market Linkages Initiative (MLI) training and then registered her phone in order to start receiving regular market information updates on her cell phone from Esoko, a Ghanaian company with a franchise in Malawi.
Esoko with “E” standing for electronic and soko for market started in 2011 in order to equip farmers, who have little bargaining power, with a tool that provides them with current market information.
Raboin acknowledges that the use of mobile phones can help farmers increase access to information and markets.
Usaid has worked with several organisations including Umodzi Consulting and Esoko Networks through markets linkages initiative which has helped farmers to access information on how and where they can sell their farm products at competitive prices.
Raboin described Esoko as a tool that costs relatively little.
He said it also adds substantial value to the organisations and programmes in which it is well utilised as with Esoko, farmers can send information to thousands of people with just the push of a button.
“Price information helps farmers to make informed decisions about where, how much and when to sell their agricultural produce and by allowing farmers to receive information, Esoko has helped to increase market transparency,” he said.
Raboin said Esoko is ensuring that access price information for agricultural commodities in a timely manner has brought the difference between a price that perpetuates poverty and a price that can lift someone out of it.
Esoko information technology manager Peter Pemba said the need for timely and accurate information was what compelled Agriculture Commodity Exchange for Africa (ACE) to use Esoko in April 2011.
According to USAID in July 2012, when ACE agents begin collecting market information from 17 markets across Malawi, they also advertised “warehouse receipts” to farmers and farmers' organisations.
At the moment, farmers are able to deposit their crops into storage and use them as collateral to access financing with the new product.