Deputy Program Director, Mercy Corps AgriFin
Agriculture employs over 1 billion people globally and is the primary source of livelihood for over 500 million smallholder farmers living in rural areas. Although the produce they cultivate feeds nearly one-third of the population, their productivity takes a hit due to challenges that include inadequate access to quality agri-inputs, financial services, infrastructure, and telecommunication, and is further compounded by a myriad of socioeconomic complications. Mercy Corps in 2012 launched its AgriFin program to identify the needs of these farmers and develop digitally-enabled services and products by networking with private sector partners. By operating as consultants/connectors in this process, AgriFin leverages the power, convenience, and prevalence of mobile phones to help the farmers access digital services that will, in turn, enhance their harvests and incomes, build resilience, and adapt to changing climate. The high-impact program has so far touched the lives of 5.5 million smallholder farmers across Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In Conversation With
Sieka Gatabaki has over 20 years of experience working across sectors including finance, telecommunication, and agriculture more recently. During his stint in the telecom sector, he was responsible for financial inclusion through mobile money interventions. Considering that the digital divide is one of the biggest divides Africa is experiencing right now, working in the agriculture sector presented Sieka Gatabaki with an opportunity to identify the barriers and solutions to this divide. Without a clear digital inclusion strategy, many African states will continue to languish in poverty and poor standards of living for the majority of their citizens. It thus made sense to him to look at the agricultural sector, which employs directly and indirectly over 70% of Africa’s population and is the perfect vertical to explore technology innovations and adoption.
With a rich experience working on solutions ranging from digital financial services to digital information and market access solutions for smallholder farmers, and your expertise in the digital usage and adoption, what do you reckon are three factors that drive a technology-led transformation in the sector?
Sieka Gatabaki: Firstly, customer-centricity is key to any financial or digital solution for this sector. Mercy Corps AgriFin deploys human-centered design and user experience testing to ensure we keep our target market needs and peculiarities at heart when developing products and services. Secondly, managing the balance between technology and human touch. Technological innovations in the sector we work in are novel and foreign concepts, for the most part, hence a clear strategy to incorporate the ‘human’ element and understand the significance of interfacing with individuals in the deployment of any technology is key. Last but not least, and perhaps more specific to finance is the capture and use of data to advise on customer segmentation, credit rating, propensities to use certain products, etc. Without a clear data strategy, most technology solutions will be meeting the transformation goals desired sub-optimally.
Could you tell us a little more about the AgriFin Accelerate Program at Mercy Corps? How does the program enable capacity building and training for smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia?
Sieka Gatabaki: We work by the principles of placing farmers at the centre, driving scale of viable products and bundling services and products on digital platforms. Launched in 2012 with the support of Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and then further supported by the Mastercard Foundation and Gates Foundation, we research the needs of smallholder farmers (SHF) — especially women and youth in agriculture — and have brought together over 100 partners to build digital products and services to meet those needs. Our partners are technology actors with existing platforms and solutions that promote financial access and capacity through a combination of technical expertise and financial support for product and channel innovation. We further help our partners bundle products and services to maximise the potential for scale and impact on the farmer. Bundling (joining products or services into a single combined or linked unit) can reduce service delivery costs and address customer awareness and uptake constraints.
How do programs such as AgriFin ensure their sustainability in the long run?
Sieka Gatabaki: AgriFin takes a market systems approach to engagements incorporating private sector players to facilitate and scale their initiatives with SHFs, which we expect and design for profitability for the partners to ensure sustainability post our intervention. AgriFin also crowds in other players in the ecosystem to partner with digital agricultural platforms as service providers to provide commercially viable solutions to core partners and SHFs at sustainable prices.
From your experience, how impactful has the adoption of technology solutions been for the different actors in the agri supply chain?
Sieka Gatabaki: We have seen a higher adoption amongst the more sophisticated actors in the agri supply chain, e.g. extension workers, veterinary service providers, wholesale agri input suppliers, and larger agro-dealers. However, there is reduced adoption as the chain moves closer to the farmer, where literacy levels and trust in technology is significantly lower. We also see a higher degree of adoption amongst the Youth compared to older generations.
Studies demonstrate that women adopt agri-technologies at lower levels and slower rates than men do, partly because many are deprived of access to new technologies due to gender-specific barriers. In light of AgriFin’s efforts towards gender equality, how is this digital gender gap being diminished?
Sieka Gatabaki: In 2015 when AgriFin Accelerate (AFA) launched, we set a target to reach 1 million farmers with Digital Financial and Information Services and to ensure 50% of this target is women SHF across Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. In order to develop strategies that deliver on the set target, AFA has sought to analyse its program context as well as the context that women SHFs operate in. Context analysis identifies strengths that exist in the program and the ecosystem, weaknesses that need to be addressed, opportunities that can be leveraged and threats that need to be mitigated. We developed a 7-step women’s strategy which we employ in our engagements and projects with our partners, and so far managed to achieve a 35% inclusion of women. We published an infographic outlining our 6 insights for engaging women farmers with digitally-enabled services. You can view it here.
Driven by the possibility of a better income, more and more youngsters are migrating to urban areas, particularly when there is an urgent need for a substantial increase in agricultural productivity to support the growing population’s needs. Considering that the agri-food sector extends beyond mere farm-level production to various other processes along the value chain, can this sector provide enough lucrative opportunities for the job-seeking youth?
Sieka Gatabaki: In a recent youth research case study AgriFin conducted, we identified three main areas where we thought youth could plug in. Firstly, as primary producers using technology in a myriad of ways to increase returns on often small parcels of land and provide constant market information, pricing, and access. Secondly, as field agents offering services to farmers such as extension support (often facilitated via a digital innovation), various financial services such as loan, and insurance agents and inspectors. Finally, directly in the value chain as aggregators, logisticians, mechanisation support, etc. Key to most of these roles is the use of technology which often aligns to the youth’s perception of quality work being technology-driven or technology-supported.
What would be AgriFin Accelerate Program’s vision for the smallholder farmers worldwide?
Sieka Gatabaki: Perhaps to paraphrase our theory of change, AgriFin would like to see a world where technology adopted to the smallholder farmers context leads to increased productivity, incomes, and resilience, as well as increased profitability for the innovators.
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The views and opinions expressed in the interview above are solely those of the individual involved and do not necessarily represent those of CropIn Technology Solutions or of any entity that the individual is or has been affiliated with.