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Phone advice helps rice farmers earn more

NMRiceApp was released in 2012 (© IRRI)
NMRiceApp was released in 2012

In Asia, where 90 per cent of the world's rice is produced and consumed, one-third of all fertiliser used in the region is applied to rice. "Crop management practices must be tailored to location-specific needs in order to produce sufficient food at affordable prices for consumers and with higher profitability for small-scale farmers," explains Dr Roland Buresh, nutrient management expert at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). "If the application of nutrients as fertilisers is inadequate, it may result in a loss in yield and profit. On the other hand, applications beyond the crop's need not only reduce profit but also increase risks to our environment." For rice farmers, fertilisers are the second-largest expense after labour.

In 2008, in partnership with the Philippines Department of Agriculture, IRRI developed an internet-based tool named Nutrient Manager for Rice (NMRice), to provide rice farmers with advice on the optimal timing, amount, and type of fertiliser to apply to their crop to maximise production and profit and reduce waste. "NMRice was first made available in the Philippines using local languages, but its distribution reach into rice-growing areas was limited," Buresh reveals. "Many Filipino farmers don't have ready access to a computer - but most have access to a mobile phone, so it made sense to pursue mobile phones as a way to communicate with farmers." This application, using a free call to a voice recording (NMRiceMobile) was released in 2011, followed by an app for Android smartphones (NMRiceApp) in 2012.

Fertiliser advice

NMRice provides farmers with advice on the optimal timing, amount, and type of fertiliser to apply to their crop (© Isagani Serrano/IRRI)
NMRice provides farmers with advice on the optimal timing, amount, and type of fertiliser to apply to their crop
© Isagani Serrano/IRRI

NMRice collects information from a farmer through easy-to-answer questions about the farmer's rice cultivation conditions. The answers are transmitted to a 'calculator' which uses a database to develop a fertiliser recommendation matching the specific needs and rice-growing conditions of that farmer. Farmers use NMRiceMobile by dialling a number to hear a voice recording in a local language. The farmer then follows the voice prompt to answer simple questions about their rice-growing conditions by pushing appropriate numbers on the phone keypad. After all questions are answered, the farmer receives a tailored fertiliser recommendation as an SMS. "It's so fast and easy to understand," says Mamerto Jimenez, a farmer from Isabela. Since its launch in January 2011, NMRiceMobile has received 10,000 calls.

After the development of the NMRiceApp, farmers who pre-tested the app said it was easy to use because pictures and images helped them understand the questions. "The beauty of this tool is it's become more powerful than NMRiceMobile since it uses more information from the farmer to process fertilizer recommendations comprehensively," says IRRI's Rowena Castillo. "At the same time, it's also easily accessible on a smartphone and an extension officer can take it to farmers in remote areas. It also means that the fertilizer guideline provided to the farmer is based on up-to-date research."

Loans through phones

To further increase yield and profit for farmers, NMRice is being piloted with 1,500 rice farmers who can now access micro-loans to buy fertiliser for their crop, thanks to a new partnership between a mobile-based microfinance bank (BPI Globe BanKO Inc.) and a farmer-focused organisation (Alalay sa Kaunlaran). "Linking technologies developed from research with microfinance services that a farmer can easily access is a promising approach for helping farming households and boosting food production in the country," Buresh says.

Rice is a major food staple (© IRRI)
Rice is a major food staple

With the growing success of NMRiceMobile, a comparable application has been developed for Indonesia, which was released in July 2012 through the phone network operator Telkomsel. PHSL - as it is known in Indonesia - was field tested in 2011-2012 with more than 300 rice farmers across nine provinces. "Farmers in all provinces increased their rice yields and net income when switching from their current fertilizer practice to the practice recommended by PHSL," Buresh reveals. "In most cases, farmers' increase in net income exceeded US$100 per hectare per season."

"As rice is a major food staple, we hope this innovation will help rice farming become more profitable while also increasing national rice production through higher yields," Buresh adds. IRRI has calculated that if only 35,000 of Indonesia's 15 million rice farmers used the PHSL fertiliser recommendations one acre for one crop, the net income for these farmers would be US$2 million.

The mobile services available in the Philippines and Indonesia are currently free. Charging farmers for the NMRice service is being considered to ensure that the system becomes self-sustaining, but this has not yet been implemented. NMRice, as a web application, is also available in Guangdong Province, in China, and versions for Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu, in India, are under evaluation in farmers' fields. The principles of NMRice are also being adapted to maize and wheat and a Nutrient Manager for maize is under development for Bangladesh.

Date published: September 2012


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