Bridging the information gap for rural communities in Malawi

11/21/2017 10:26 am ET
William Binalison harvests his sweet potatoes on his farm in Taiza village, Lilongwe district, Malawi.
Self Help Africa
William Binalison harvests his sweet potatoes on his farm in Taiza village, Lilongwe district, Malawi.

Mobile technology offers access to knowledge and unexpected opportunities for isolated rural communities.

A pile of freshly harvested orange sweet potato stacked at his feet, William Binalison took the phone from his pocket and dialled for help.

Calling the 321 advice service, he listened intently, hung up, turned to me and smiled.

Last year, when William harvested sweet potato for the first time he stored his crop in a loose mound to the rear of the yard on his farm in Central Malawi. Many of the tubers rotted.

With the advice he received from 321, William told me that he would now do it differently. He had been advised to store the potato in a cool, dark place, and to ensure that the tubers were free from damp loose dirt, which could cause decay.

The day I met William was the day I realised the real potential that mobile phones had in bridging the information gap experienced by many isolated farming families in Africa.

The mobile phone age was already revolutionising the lives of people in Africa. While the previous information ages, driven by the landline telephone and the television might have passed most Africans by, the mobile generation had changed all that. Now, phones are everywhere, phone credit sellers are to be found in every village market, and booking small businesses have popped up everywhere, providing services that charge mobiles using car batteries, solar panels and much else besides.

A new calling platform, implemented by various organisations, including Self Help Africa, has been harnessing the incredible reach of the mobile phone to provide rural poor farming families in Malawi with timely access to advice about their crops and their businesses.

Today, close to 800,000 Malawian smallholder farmers like William are accessing farming advice at the end of the phone. It’s a service available on demand and at practically no cost.

The 321 mobile platform was launched in 2014 as part of an innovative project implemented by Self Help Africa in collaboration with Humanitarian Network International (HNI), and local phone and internet provider, Airtel Malawi.

In less than three years, the platform has processed more than one million calls and received over six million texts. A recent survey conducted in areas where the project has been implemented has shown that close to 90% of users had experienced a benefit from the information they accessed on the platform.

William is one of them. Living 29 km from the nearest town, he told me how he used to travel by foot to get assistance from the state’s farm extension advisors. Since he started using the service two years ago, he has experienced a transformation on his small land in Taiza village, Lilongwe district, where he also grows maize and groundnuts:

“I used to produce just enough food to feed myself and my two children. I got advice on pest management, post-harvest handling and market information from the 321 platform, and both my yields, and the money I can make from farming has improved,” he told to me that day. “Last year, I made 25,000 Kwacha (30 euros) by selling surplus of sweet potatoes.”

Closing the information gap

A country of 18 million people, 85% of the population of Malawi live in rural areas, with most relying on subsistence agriculture for a living. In the most remote villages, access to agricultural advice is hard to find. Extension workers, who must travel on foot or by bicycle- if they have one- rarely venture far from the main towns, Louis Malajira, Project Officer at Self Help Africa, told me.

Farmers in these areas have very limited access to training and advice to improve their farming practices and produce more. That’s precisely where the 321 platform comes in - it is intending to close that information gap, Louis explained.

Self Help Africa

Based on a system of Interactive Voice Response, Live Voice Response, SMS and prompted navigation, the 321 platform provides information on the planting, harvesting and post-harvest management of 15 crops and vegetables. It also provides up-to-date advice on a range of other subjects such as livestock management, market prices, weather, nutrition, health, gender and more. While the first eight calls are available free of charge, thereafter the user is charged 15kwacha per call by the service.

Self Help Africa has been cooperating with various institutions to provide the most up-to-date and reliable information possible, including real-time market prices of various commodities thanks to collaboration with the Agricultural Commodity Exchange of Malawi.

Reaching women

Mobile phone ownership in Malawi remains low, even by African standards, with only 38% of adults reported to have a phone subscription. Farmers have overcome this by placing calls to the service while attending twice-weekly group meetings, Louise Malajira says.

A bigger challenge exists however when it comes to reaching women farmers, as in the majority of households it is the men who control the ownership and use of the phone, where one exists at all. Working alongside governmental extension workers, Louis Malajira says they embarked on an awareness raising campaign that was specifically targeted at women who were working on farms.

The results were encouraging, with the number of women using the 321 platform doubling in just one year.

“It is important that women can access farm information, as they are the ones who do most of the agricultural work. For them, the platform is also a valuable source of information on health and gender-related topics such as household and property issues,” Louis told me.

New horizons

After seeing the success story of William and other farmers I met in Malawi, I am convinced that the mobile phone revolution that has been at play in Africa in the past years has potential to transform further the lives of the poorest communities, and in unexpected ways.

Indeed, the innovative platform has proven equally transformative outside of Malawi. Across the border in Zambia, a similar service has been piloted by my organisation, while in Burkina Faso, a similar platform that launched just last summer received nearly 45,000 contacts within its first month of operation.

Many more African farmers could soon find farming advice at the other end of the phone line.

Ray Jordan is CEO of Self Help Africa.

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