Smartphones are increasingly becoming instrumental not only in keeping in touch with offshore friends and relations, but also in accessing farm produce markets that offer good returns for investment.
Imam Wali, a 26-year-old farmer from Dedza, uses his smartphone to search for markets for his farm produce.
“I market my farm produce on Facebook and WhatsApp. Through these platforms, I am able to attract customers who are willing to pay good prices for my farm produce,” says Wali, owner of Awali Farm at Mawa Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kasumbu in the district.
The journalist-cum-farmer grows maize, beans, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, Irish potatoes and other crops.
“I also rear goats and chickens,” adds Wali, who graduated with a diploma in journalism from The Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi.
Wali is not the only farmer using smartphones to access market information. A 22-year-old Praise Pahuwa also uses Facebook and WhatsApp accounts to market his crops and livestock products.
“Generally, social media is cheap, interactive, accessible and delivers information in real-time than newspapers and radio stations.
“It is simple to market farm produce online. We either post photographs of the produce or design adverts which are uploaded online,” he says.
Pahuwa, a student at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), grows vegetables and rears turkeys, guinea fowls and dairy animals at his farm in Chole Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mabuka in Mulanje District.
“Through social media, I am able to access markets beyond my catchment area. I also interact with my customers and get instant feedback which helps me to improve,” he says.
Pahuwa is a member of the Poultry Farmers Malawi Facebook page whose objectives are to exchange skills in poultry management and provide space where they can market their produce.
Several farmers in the country are using social media as individuals and groups to market their produce.
Lilongwe Farmers Market, Poultry Farming Network-Malawi, Farming Malawi, Soybeans Farmers Malawi, Malawian Small-Scale Farmers and Poultry Farmers Malawi are some of social media channels which are used for marketing purposes.
Admore Kamanga, a lecturer in agri-business at Luanar, says social media is one of the best ways of marketing agricultural produce, especially this time when Covid-19 necessitated some restrictions on physical contacts between and among people.
Information and communication technology (ICT) expert Dr Rachel Sibande hints that social media increase visibility of farm produce without any physical interaction.
“Using technology to market agriculture produce has created a convenient virtual market platform for farmers,” says Sibande, who is also director of mHub, an incubator for ICT specialists in Malawi.
Care Project Study
Wali and Pahuwa experiences confirm results of a study which Sassi Akinya, one of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) researchers, did in Tanzania in 2018.
The study titled Adoption of Mobile Phones Can Provide Youth with Agriculture Markets Access, Akinya found that the use of ICTs such as mobile phones can attract rural youths to venture into agriculture and increase their access to markets.
The researcher, in her policy brief, says several studies have shown that the majority of youths do not go into farming due to lack of capital, markets and relevant technologies.
Akinya argues that phones can help rural farmers such as Wali and Pahuwa to “locate potential buyers and identify people who are willing to pay higher prices for their produce”.
She says access to useful market information and user-friendliness of smartphones are factors that encourage farmers to adopt and use the technology.
IITA, with funding from the International Fund for Agriculture Development (Ifad), is running a three-year project christened “enhancing capacity to apply research evidence in policy for youth engagement in agribusiness and rural economic activities in Africa (Care)”.
IITA Care Project generates and provides vital information to help African policymakers come up with research-based policies and guidelines in order to create more jobs for youths, boost food security and economic growth of countries in Africa.
The 2015 National Investment Policy (NIP) regards agriculture as a key sector not only in Malawi but also in Africa as a whole; hence, the need to integrate ICT in its operations.
Agriculture, according to the 2015 National Agriculture Policy (NAP), accounts for 38 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides employment to 85 percent of its population.
At the African level, NAP says agriculture constitutes 25 percent of its GDP and employs 70 percent of its workforce.
“This is why it is important to integrate ICT in agriculture to harness its growth,” argues Kamanga.
Despite ICT being key to the development of the agriculture sector, Paul Mphepo, a communication lecturer at The Polytechnic, feels there is more that needs to be done to develop and harness potentials of the two sectors.
He says unstable power supply, poor Internet connectivity and high Internet data costs are some of the challenges of marketing farm produce virtually.
Mphepo also warns farmers against falling prey to tricksters who masquerade as buyers to defraud them of their produce.
Minister of Information Gospel Kazako agrees that Internet availability, quality and cost are a hindrance to government’s efforts to develop the country.
“As government, we will ensure that Internet connectivity extends to rural areas. We will also continue to engage telecommunication service providers to lower Internet data cost so that Malawi achieves universal access to ICT services,” he says.
Malawi has also started tele-centres in rural areas and developed several policies not only to achieve the universal access of ICT services, but also to enhance integration of ICT and agriculture.
Some of the policies are the National ICT Policy, Agriculture Sector Wide Approach and the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS).
Akinyi suggests a number of strategies to policymakers to ensure that rural farmers use mobile phones to improve their livelihoods.
“For widespread adoption of mobile phones among farmers to take place, policymakers should create enabling conditions which include expanding network services to rural areas and orienting farmers on the benefits of using mobile phones to access market information,” she recommends.
If agriculture policies in Malawi and Africa in general are informed by research evidence, then economic, food security, job creation, high standard of life, youth and women empowerment, and universal access to ICT services encapsulated in MGDS, Agenda 2063 and SDGs will be realised.