Communication is the key: Starting Ventures project #Hapi finds new ways to support Egypt’s small-scale farmers
Agriculture accounts for around one-third of all jobs in Egypt. Besides cotton, other common crops are vegetables such as corn (maize), potatoes and tomatoes. Up to 80 percent of the country’s arable land is farmed by small-scale farmers. In their day-to-day work, they are confronted with many challenges, including a lack of know-how about cultivation practices and combatting plant diseases and pests, as well as insufficient equipment. Moreover, it is difficult to support them because many small-scale farmers are geographically isolated, and the high rate of illiteracy makes it challenging to effectively engage with them through traditional communication channels.
The project #Hapi aims at changing these circumstances: Farmers will receive disease-specific alerts and advice on good agricultural practices and product stewardship through their mobile phones in the form of text messages, Whatsapp and Interactive Voice Response (IVR). The BASF project team led by Thavy Staal (Sustainability and Project Manager Agricultural Solutions Africa & Middle East at BASF), Inji Zaki (Regional Sustainability and Digitalization Manager Agricultural Solutions Nile & Middle East at BASF) and Abhijeet Sharma (Digital Development and Roll Outs Europe, Africa and Middle East at BASF) is developing customized communication concepts and channels to reach tomato small-scale farmers and retailers. These actions range from local face-to-face training to an early disease warning system using an algorithm that includes weather and satellite data. Having a good understanding of the target group proved to be key to the project’s success.
“With our new Route-to-Market business model, BASF focused on broader reach to small-scale farmers who lack training on agricultural practices that are considered essential for developing successful agricultural enterprises,” says Zaki. In 2017, BASF launched the Mobile Agricultural Clinic to support and educate small-scale farmers in remote areas. The Mobile Agricultural Clinic can be easily set up at different locations and offer farmers the opportunity to meet face-to-face with BASF technical experts for advice and diagnosis of plant diseases. In conjunction with CropLife Egypt, an agrochemical industry association, there is a dedicated safety corner for teaching the responsible use of crop protection products focusing on human health and the environment. Because of the low rates of literacy and to fight counterfeit products, recommendations are provided visually with graphics and photos. To date, more than 3,500 farmers visited the Mobile Agricultural Clinic – an enormous success. However, it soon became apparent that this concept would need to be further developed in order to reach more farmers.
The second phase of the project, #Hapi, therefore focuses on up-scaling using digital technology. To that end, a comprehensive early disease warning system for tomato diseases is being developed. Unlike large-scale farmers who use precision technology directly via smartphones, computers or tablets, the early disease warning system will be used by BASF technical experts who will extract vital information about disease probabilities. With this real-time information, tailor-made messages will be sent to farmers whose crops are at risk of disease infection via text messages, IVR and Whatsapp. Retailers will also receive the same alert to have the right products stocked in their shops and to be ready to provide advice and support to farmers. This disease alert service, branded as “Ardena” (Arabic for “our land”), will be available to farmers and retailers in 2020. “Ardena offers more than just disease alerts: With help of a chatbot via Whatsapp, farmers and retailers can request product information, whereabouts of the nearest retailers and location and date of the next Mobile Agricultural Clinic,“ says Sharma. With a mobile phone penetration rate of more than 100 percent, reaching farmers on their mobile phones was the logical step. Sending engaging voice messages, not only addresses low literacy rates among farmers but also keeps them interested in the content. “This real-time information enables especially efficient use of crop protection products,” says Staal. This can save input costs and is more environmentally friendly. Furthermore, harvest losses are reduced which leads to higher yield for the farmers.
This project contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, and (17) Partnerships for the Goals. For Staal and her team, however, this success is just the beginning of a long journey. The next steps will include the automatic integration of the communication platforms into the early disease warning system, which will make it possible to alert farmers and retailers even more quickly. Furthermore, other potential features, such as evaluating the condition of fields with satellite images and linking farmers to markets (prices/buyers) will be integrated. Last but not least, expanding the project to other crops and other countries is a possibility.