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Enhancing Agricultural Livelihoods with Mobile Phones during COVID-19, Economic Slowdown in Africa

The potential of the mobile phone as a communications device is fairly obvious, you could say it can enter the Frontline in the fight against health crisis, hunger, poverty and in the work of many farmers, small holder farming co-operatives and organisations to improve agricultural production in Africa.

In Africa, deprivation is high, with most of the population living on less than $1 per day, making supplies like fertilizer, pesticide, medicine, animal feed or other beneficial investments out of reach for many farmers. Within rural communities, where most farming takes place, the seeds available are often old, mislabelled or poor quality, and unlikely to produce to their full potential, if at all. Additionally, there is usually not a market for farmers to sell what they have grown at a fair price.

Topical weather and rainfall information, which establishes when farmers should plant, is chronically incorrect. And there is little to no access to formal agricultural instruction, meaning they rely on communal knowledge when determining what to plant, and how to prepare their land and treat their seeds practices that may not be appropriate, but are all they have.

Information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones are touted as digital platforms with transformative potential to reach many farmers at once across rural settings. Mobile phones are a common and critical form of connectivity for people around the world, including those in developing countries. This can help to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the livelihoods and food security of rural poor people.

Multinational and local companies have already started to capitalize on these opportunities although many mobile phone-enabled services are still at an early stage. Our lives have all been revolutionised since the very first handheld mobile phone rolled off the assembly line in the early 1970s. And fewer still would have had any idea of the profound effect that the mobile phone might have on efforts to end hunger and poverty in some of the poorest parts of the globe.

In the area of agriculture, mobile phones could be particularly helpful in extending the reach of services to rural populations by facilitating communication that is not restricted by distance, volume, medium and time.

As a result, Africans have access to a growing number of services through their mobile phones (m-services). Several m-services are already offered to African farmers, including information, insurance and marketing services. Many of these are provided by local companies, although most remain at a small scale.

An estimated 6.7 million small-scale farmers in developing countries who are adversely impacted by the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Using mobile phone technology, farmers can receive low-cost, information about crop diseases, customized advice to improve on-farm practices, input utilization, pest and disease management, environmental sustainability, access to markets and current prices being paid for their crops at market.

Information and services delivered through mobile phones, ‘m-services’, have transformative potential to provide rural African farmers with important agro-meteorological information. While they can also get the latest weather information, details on rains, and also early warning about impending weather events that might threaten their crops, or their homes.

Inclusion of mobile phones and m-services is attributed to several factors related to the local context. As the cost of mobile phones have fallen and connectivity has spread, phone ownership and internet access have become possible for populations in the continent’s lowest-income areas. With this uptake of mobile phones, users can subscribe to receive mobile phone-enabled services or ‘m-services’ to access agro-meteorological.

M-services deliver electronic media content through mobile technologies and is an umbrella term that includes m-agri, m-commerce, m-banking or m-payments. M-services come in varied forms, including Short Message Service (SMS), Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), mobile applications (apps) and helplines. The difference between SMS and USSD protocol is that SMS is a text messaging service, whereas USSD protocol are in the form of ‘Quick Codes’.

Depending on the electronic media m-services contain, they can be accessed by phones with and without internet access. M-services can be used to connect buyers with sellers, disseminate general information about farming and livestock (such as market information on prices), and send alerts on pest and disease threats. Some m-services are free to use or may require a cost to use advanced features, while others are entirely proprietary.







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