mAgriculture and the transformative power of mobile tech on smallholder farming


Mobile smartphone technology can detect and track natural carcinogens like aflatoxin in grain, estimated to contaminate up to 25 percent of the global food supply

The developing world, and especially Africa, has experienced an explosion of mobile technology in the past decade that has already transformed the lives of millions of people through innovations such as mobile banking and the “digital wallet”. Now, mobile technology is being used in even more creative ways to improve the quality of life for an unlikely group of mobile cellular phone users: smallholder farmers.

Using the popular naming conventions now associated with this type of mobile revolution, mAg is a movement that seeks to leverage the high penetrance of mobile phones in developing countries with the power and versatility of mobile platforms to reshape the face of smallholder agriculture.

Unlike mobile banking, which has now become an integral part of life in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, mAg is a relatively new idea. As such, the strategy of proponents and entrepreneurs has been to take a methodical approach, tackling very specific problems and coming up with solutions that take into account their audience’s needs as well as their facility with technology.

For instance, one of the biggest challenges for smallholder farmers is lack of access to market information such as crop prices. Whereas larger operations have the tools to track market values of crops and negotiate better prices for their commodities, smallholder farmers are often in the dark when it comes time to sell. Companies are now seeking to eliminate this problem through mAg. Esoko, a service provided by Ghanian company BusyLab, now allows farmers to access wholesale and retail market prices through SMS as well as other value added services such as the ability to buy and sell crops wirelessly.

M-Farm, based in Kenya, goes even further, allowing farmers to connect with each other through their mobile phones in order to pool resources and negotiate more profitable, large scale crop sales with exporters and commercial retailers.

Maize infected with aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus flavus.

Maize infected with aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus flavus.

Several factors point to an increase in the market for mAg. First, the last 5 years have seen tremendous growth in mobile phone penetrance in the developing world and it has not yet reached saturation. Second, if mobile banking is any testament to the type of adopters Africans and others in the developing world are, there will be a large and enthusiastic consumer base for mAg applications. Third, and most importantly, mAg actually has the capability and potential to improve numerous aspects of smallholder agriculture.

As the mobile revolution in developing countries continues, look for mAg to become a leading movement, and expect agricultural innovations to follow.