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The key to bagging bigger markets

Connect Africa agents help the community to effectively communicate by selling airtime and telephone services (© Georgina Smith/Magic of Zambia)
Connect Africa agents help the community to effectively communicate by selling airtime and telephone services
© Georgina Smith/Magic of Zambia

Sitting on a small stool in the shade of her home, Mary Mumba rests after giving a tour of her six-hectare plot of land. It used to be just two hectares when she started, she explains. "Then I used a community pay phone put here by Connect Africa to find markets for my maize and soya in town." Since then, this enterprising smallscale farmer near Mumbwa, a town 140 kilometres west of Zambia's capital Lusaka, has steadily grown her business and now supplies to regular, if limited, markets in town -using a newly purchased mobile phone.

Connect Africa's core business is training rural communities to maximise their income by selling communication services such as airtime, community pay phone (CPP) services or mobile phone money transfers alongside their usual business. Connect Africa also acts as an umbrella organisation: small scale agents without the necessary capital to register themselves with national mobile networks can register and transfer or collect money for clients anywhere in the country, while accruing an administration fee.

Because the majority of Connect Africa's clients are farmers, the organisation has established Kutenda Farm*, a permaculture demonstration plot which illustrates how information and communication technologies (ICT), already on offer at the organisation's service hub in Mumbwa, can develop agricultural potential. Volunteers are trained in growing high-value crops such as lettuce and spices like peppers, while applying sustainable and cost-effective farming practices and employing ICTs on a regular basis to ensure appropriate markets for their improved produce.

Information highway at Kutenda Farm

Relying on rain-fed agriculture and farming only common staple crops such as maize, smallscale farmers around Mumbwa battle with narrow market potential and supply gluts at harvest time, which drive down prices. Connect Africa's Director, Dion Jerling, observes: "Key to addressing these challenges is supplying farmers with options - both alternative sources of income, the ability to transfer money into and out of rural areas, and information about the diversity of crops farmers can grow to boost their revenue. We are taking our usual work to train people in rural areas how to use ICTs a step further, expanding on knowledge about agriculture, a vital lifeline for rural communities," he says.

Kutenda Farm illustrates how ICT can develop agricultural potential (© Georgina Smith/Magic of Zambia)
Kutenda Farm illustrates how ICT can develop agricultural potential
© Georgina Smith/Magic of Zambia

Kutenda Farm is located in a rural community on a rolling strip of land on the outskirts of Mumbwa town. Stepping enthusiastically between neat rows of green lettuce and beans, permaculture supervisor Victor Chinda explains how he uses the internet to download information about cultivating non-traditional crops like peppers, chillies, herbs and spices, which will fetch a higher price on local markets with minimal money required for fertilisers.

He is careful to emphasise that internet research should be combined with local expert advice; hence the demonstration plot to teach volunteers how to apply sustainable techniques back on their home plots. "We emphasise that communities can use the internet at our office hub as a tool to research high-quality crops or agricultural techniques," he beams.

"For example, we have researched and implemented pools for harvesting water, so the farm does not rely on increasingly unpredictable rainfall, and mulch is made from grass piled onto crop ridges to retain moisture, replace soil nutrients and suppress weeds." Insect repelling crops like chilli are planted to cut down on chemical pesticides, he continues, and old tyres are used as miniature nurseries, filled with elephant dung or nitrogen-rich compost from intercropped Moringa oleifera trees.

Dial-a-market

Connect Africa's Regional Coordinator, Lloyd Kabulwebulwe, explains that good communication is vital to improving the entire agricultural value chain - from what to grow to where to sell. "This is demonstrated throughout by regularly using the phone to communicate with markets and order farm products such as fertiliser using mobile money transfers," he says.

Mary Mumba used Connect Africa's Community Pay Phones to find local markets (© Georgina Smith/Magic of Zambia)
Mary Mumba used Connect Africa's Community Pay Phones to find local markets
© Georgina Smith/Magic of Zambia

Connect Africa now supports more than 500 smallscale farmers with training in ICT services, which can link them with bigger markets and bring in alternative income. Of course there have been challenges. Working with small scale mobile money agents incurs an element of risk. Money changes hands on a regular basis, and although agents must contribute a float, a trusting relationship between all stakeholders is imperative. In addition, farmers who have never switched on a computer before and are often convinced that traditional methods of farming are 'better' can be sceptical of change.

But effective ICT use has already started changing lives, as Mumba can attest. And recent interest by the luxurious Mukambi Lodge in nearby Kafue National Park to source Kutanda Farm's fresh produce, following conversations via mobile phone, just goes to show that connecting the right people - and being in the know - pays. "Our next aim is to roll out mobile phone network coverage country-wide, allowing smallscale farmers to readily communicate their needs to suppliers or buyers by mobile phone across the country, putting the power in their hands to boost their own incomes," says Jerling.

* Kutenda Farm is funded by Connect Africa with contributions from the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA).

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: September 2012

 

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