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We see an opportunity to transform how agriculture is done

How Mercy Corps AgriFin helps small African farmers

Sieka Gatabaki, Program Director of Mercy Corps AgriFin, explains how tech is helping small farmers in Africa make better decisions

What is Mercy Corps AgriFin? 
Mercy Corps is an international NGO doing humanitarian and development work. AgriFin is a Mercy Corps ag-tech program focused on the transformation of agriculture through digital innovation. 

What’s your mission? 
We envision a future where every smallholder farmer is prosperous in a digitally interconnected world.

About 10 years ago, the program started to investigate which opportunities existed to improve the lives of small-scale producers across the global south. The idea was that mobile phones would create an opportunity to increase the resilience, incomes, and productivity of small-scale producers. 

So, what is the link between Mercy Corps and sustainability? 
The goal of Mercy Corps is to help underserved communities cope, adapt, and thrive in the face of various global challenges: climate change, conflict, or what have you. We want to help those communities become more resilient, adapt to change, and thrive, becoming more sustainable participants in the economies where they are situated.

So when you talk about sustainability, are you using the word in a broader sense?
I mean economic sustainability, security, and the sustainable use of different resources. We have a lot of programs, but Agrifin specifically looks at the agricultural sector with a digital bias. Digital presents an unprecedented opportunity for smallholder farmers to be economically sustainable by changing the way they farm, the way they access information, the way they access markets, and so on.

Can you give an example of how that works? 
Many farmers lack access to good agricultural practices or agronomic information. This is because the ratio of “extension service providers”—people who would educate and support these farmers—is just one in 1,000. 

One person can’t possibly provide the information that 1,000 farmers need to make decisions that let them farm sustainably. But since most farmers now have phones, we can communicate with them directly, giving them the advice they need. 

And it’s not just providing information blindly but also providing decision support. For example, providing weather reports, or information on when to plant, what to plant, what type of pesticides to use, and so on.

Under the heading, “Knowledge is power,” can you talk a bit about the Sprout platform? 
We designed Sprout as a vehicle to understand and improve the way content is digested and delivered to small-scale producers. Sprout is a platform that aggregates content from scientific bodies—information about agricultural value chains, fertilizers, et cetera. Sprout reviews these scientific and technical publications, curates them, and develops digital content that can be consumed through multiple digital channels, such as mobile text messages. 

We supply that content to what we call “farmer-facing organizations”—for example, a bank bundling agricultural content with a loan service or an NGO looking to deliver information to farmers through mobile phones. 

In some cases, we combine that content with weather information to support decision-making. So it's not just providing content, but providing it at the right time and in the right context.

What are your biggest challenges?
One of the major challenges in Africa is that small-scale farmers tend to be older, with an average age of about 60 to 65 years. So, there's a challenge regarding digital and financial literacy, as many of them do not trust these new tools, making behavioral change a big obstacle. 

Transform recently spoke with Zambia’s minister of Technology, the Honorable Felix Mutati, and he talked about that very problem. So, what are your plans for the future? 
For the ag-tech space in Africa to grow, we need to drive a lot more investment into technologies and innovations that support the sector. We see an opportunity to transform the way agriculture is done. 

For example, we've seen a couple of agri-techs exploring ways of aggregating farmland. Instead of having small-scale producers work on individual plots, they now have a professional company that aggregates 50 acres together and professionally manages that land on behalf of the smallholder farmers. 

This accelerates the productivity of those farms, improving the livelihoods of the farmers. It also increases food security, a challenge for many African countries. 

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