Reflections on mAg. Services: Partnerships Between MNOs and APs

Photo Credit: GSMA

NB: This is my personal analysis of contributions to question one from the forum. This post is the first in series of six, analyzing each of the six forum questions that were discussed.

Partnership, being one of the key criteria for selecting mFarmer Fund beneficiaries, the introductory question (below) for the forum was about partnership.


Question 1: In a partnership between a mobile network operator and agricultural partners, what unique value proposition does each partner bring, how can they leverage of each others’ strengths and what roles should each play in delivering a service to farmers?

Quick Summary of Contributions to the Question

With regard to the unique value propositions that each partner brings to the partnership, most of the contributions centered around the fact that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs):

  • Are providers of the mobile technology platform for the delivery of agricultural services
  • Have crucial role in ensuring access to the telecom network (adequate)
  • Have the responsibility for developing products that are affordable for farmers
  • Are responsible for addressing coverage issues
  • Need to ensure that they provide credible and dependable service
  • Have the responsibility of charging users and share the generated income with external Value Added Service providers
  • Are to be in charge of marketing and communicating the services to users (branding).

On the other hand, the Agricultural Partners (APs):

  • May be considered as content providers
  • Be able to clearly identify who the target farmers are and what their real information needs are
  • Must have rich experience of quality content for the farmers
  • Must have clear distinct experience and expertise in the areas of understanding farmers need
  • Shall have the ability to solve farmers’ problems and ultimately help them with inputs and services to implement the solutions
  • Must have the skills of connecting with farming communities
  • Be able to understand which format is best suited for the collection and delivery of information
  • Be able to collect, analyze, refine and disseminate (or make available) relevant agricultural information to the target audience
  • Be able to market available information services in the field, including through networks of extension workers
  • Shall ensure that the MNO fully understands that there is a real business behind Value Added Service (VAS) targeting farmers, even if the information service may take a longer time to take off
  • Be responsible for formatting of the content, reformatting, sometimes translating to be delivered and understood by the end user
  • Be responsible for quality assurance of the content – including sources, processes and final advice delivered
  • Are most likely in the best position to make sure that the mobile “channel” is used well to augment other info delivery channels.

Part B & C: How can the partners leverage of each others’ strengths and what roles should each play in delivering a service to farmers?

Contributions from the forum emphasized the importance of utilizing the existing infrastructure and assets including the mobile channels such as call center, SMS and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) infrastructure, short-code, and billing and revenue collection facilities. The partners can also utilize their respective brand strength and marketing expertise. For example MNOs have some of the strongest brands and trust with the users which can be powerful agents for marketing and driving awareness and the APs can also through their Agriculture VAS, help the brand and increase the market share of the mobile operator. Also pointed out was the possibility of MNOs to provide Agri VAS access via basic Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) menu service which could drastically decrease the barriers for the rural users to access the service and increase the usability. Potentially MNOs have the capacity to blend Agri VAS with mobile money solution and compliment advisory with agricultural financial services, such as loans and crop insurance.

Reflections on the Discussion

My take on this first question is that the understanding of the “AP” and “MNO” has not been made clear at the start of the discussion leading to all kinds of interpretations, assumptions and labeling. A first look at the question makes it simple and obvious but a critical analysis reveals how complex it is especially with the key terms – MNOs and APs.

In my first post at the forum, I did call for the definitions of these terms that seem obvious to the e-agriculture community. Fro example with the APs, are we talking of any group or organization involve in agricultural development services such as NGOs with agricultural service provision; community-based organizations involved in agriculture; farmer-based organizations; national agricultural units such as extension services, or research institutes?

A key argument that ran through the discussion and confirmed my argument was the call for a third party organization for the partnership. The issue of third party partners such as software developers, technology developers, new start-ups, research institutes, international organizations, etc. partnering with MNOs and APs to ensure the success of good mobile services for users came up. The case of IKSL was mentioned where other agencies and institutions which generate actual content – like Agricultural Universities and Research Institutes, International agencies like CABI, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Agmarknet for market information were involved in the partnership as third parties.

So a successful partnership for the mFarmer Fund may need more than MNO/AP partnership by reaching out to other institutions and organizations that have expertise in the Initiative’s Core Service. Alternatively, the APs and MNOs may be able to subcontract some of these services, but the positions of these different expertise need to be recognized.

The four points below could summarize the components of the partnership, whether two, three or more partners are involved:

  1. Demand Articulations – partners that have skills and expertise of understanding the users (needs and potentials), understanding the content dynamics for users, etc. (e.g. NGO, CBO)
  2. Network Formations – partners who are able to help connect other partners together and also connect users to product developers, ensure boundary spanning and information filtering (e.g. social media firms)
  3. Process Management – partners that have the capacity to ensure infrastructure development, management and maintenance, generation of revenue for sustainability, quality assurance, formatting, etc. (e.g. MNOs, Software companies, IT firms, Universities, etc.)
  4. Supply Activation – partners that have the skills to train and educate users on the products and services, who understand the language of the developers, able to communicate VAS, (e.g. extension services, NGOs, research institutes, etc.)

These are quotes from some of the experts at the forum:

“The Agricultural partner might not have an immediate capacity to do this in-house, as Agricultural Partner is usually an NGO or Ag. institution and not a VAS provider it its traditional sense.”

“For this, independent agronomists/ SMEs might be recruited if for example the agricultural partner has extensive experience on the ground but not so much access to the latest deep research around each individual crop/ animal.”

In otherwise, it has been acknowledged that partnership is necessary between AP (s) and MNO (s) but other views are that, the role of the MNOs, should be seen as roles being played by Internet Service Provider (ISP). That is providing the platform or network that could enable start-ups and VAS providers to utilize their services and innovations. VAS provision should remain independent of the MNOs.

Other Important Points and Questions Raised on this First Question!

  • The mobile channel is great for delivering certain types of information, but not all.
  • The profitability and success of the partnership is key
  • How would a model work that included two or more MNOs as the service delivery partners?
  • Sources of funding for the partnership – governments or on business models for profitability?
  • Would an MNO go into massive infrastructure investment just because of a partnership with AP for delivering agricultural services?
  • Where are the farmers in the partnership?

NB: The next in series is Reflections on Mobile Ag. Services: Barriers to Scale and available on 12/26/2011.

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