Reflections on mAg. Services: Barriers to Scale

Photo Credit: Spore

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

One of the objectives of the mFarmer Initiative is to drive scalable, replicable and commercially successful mobile agricultural solutions that bridge the information gap and increase the productivity and income of rural smallholders. With this mind, the second forum question was about barriers to scaling mobile agricultural services as stated below:

Question 2: What are the barriers to reaching scale with mobile agriculture information services and how can partnering with a mobile network operator (MNO) reduce these?

To really answer this second question, discussants needed to first understand what a successful ‘scaled’ mobile agricultural service is; identify the barriers to scale; and then look at the unique value propositions that each partner brings and their roles in the partnership.

Successful Scaled Mobile Agricultural Service?

The challenges associated with scaling ICT projects in general and mobile services in specific came up several times during the discussion. Scale by default may be seen in terms of wide-reaching impact of the service through adoption by a large number of individuals, communities, regions, etc. It is about moving projects from being islands of excellence to serve and empower a larger audience. Others also look at quality benefits of the service to more people over a wider geographical area, more equitably, more quickly, and more lastingly. So what are the barriers to taking mobile agricultural services from small-scale level to a larger scale and at the same time maintaining the quality and ensuring sustainability?

Below is my summary of barriers to scale of mobile agricultural services from the forum:

  • Infrastructure strength – weak presence in terms of infrastructure of MNOs could be a challenge to scaling
  • Reliability of message delivery – less reliability in delivery of messages to the customers may prevent future expansion
  • Cost of delivery mechanism – high cost of the delivery mechanism could also be a challenge to the MNO
  • Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) – low ARPU of customers shows how unprofitable the MNO will be and a barrier to scale
  • Language – high diversity of local languages within a given country/region of service deployment could affect smooth scaling
  • Literacy – low illiteracy rate in a country or region may affect successful scaling of mobile agriculture service
  • Technology – highly complex mobile handsets, difficult-to-use interface and medium of delivery could be a barrier
  • Government Policies – since most of these mobile agricultural services are private sector driven, without sound government information and agricultural policies and regulations, it will be difficult to scale
  • Accessibility – to MNO for smooth and easy enrolment process and Point of Presence for post-sales service
  • Affordability – expensive services to the user will prevent wide-scale adoption
  • Local needs of users – lack of understanding of local needs and demands of the users

“If right products in which the targeted beneficiaries find value are created, scaling should happen by itself.”

Part B: How can partnering with a mobile network operator (MNO) reduce barriers to scaling mobile agricultural services?

The first post in response to the main question seemed to address this second part of the question that focus more on “intermediaries.” The post argued that barriers to scale of market information systems are more about the ‘architecture’ of the system than the kind/type of partnerships formed between and among the service providers and MNOs. In other words, partnership with MNOs is not a magic wand for scaling mobile agricultural services.

So does it worth it for agricultural value added service provider to partner with MNO for scaling?

This interesting post critiqued the role of intermediaries in delivering market information to users within the agricultural value chain. The contributor argued that the cost involved in identifying potential intermediaries, training and maintaining them to access agricultural information through SMS or helpline services and then delivering it to the farmers is a huge challenge to scaling and sustainability.

Based on the contributions from the forum, I have identified two types of intermediaries namely ‘human intermediaries’ and ‘technological intermediaries’ in the context of mobile agricultural service delivery.

Human Intermediaries

This includes intermediaries working directly with farmers such as the agricultural extension agents and also the Grameen Foundations Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs). The challenges associated with the human intermediaries have led to the enormous utilization of the technological intermediaries.

Technological Intermediaries

The technological intermediaries are the communication technologies that ensure direct-to-farmer services, and in this case mobile services such as SMS, data, voice, etc. that are all critical channels for delivering targeted, relevant and actionable information to as many farmers as possible. But the need to use the right technology at the right stage of the value chain for effective content delivery was deliberated upon.

a) SMS services: The ability of SMS services like Esoko and Reuters Market Light (RML) to timely deliver market information to farmers has been well documented but the actual impact of these services on the production of the farmers and their living conditions is yet to be documented. Meanwhile, the social and technological challenges associated with SMS in these rural areas have been mentioned as a barrier. While the cost of providing SMS service may be cheap, due to the low literacy rates in these areas and the complexity with some of the user interface, some discussants do not see the future of SMS in providing mobile agricultural services to farmers.

Some other contributions pointed out the challenge with illiteracy and SMS use but cited examples where farmers are overcoming this by engaging other family members to read and translate the SMS messages for them, especially with Mobile Money services. With agricultural information, farmer groups/cooperatives are the target rather than individual farmers so that within each group, at least one literate member can play the intermediary role by reading and translating text messages to other group members.

The idea of using volunteers or exploring national service or youth service schemes in some parts of Africa to provide agricultural information through the technological intermediaries to smoothly transition into more sustainable economic models was also brought up.

b) Voice-based services: When it comes to voice-based services, discussants were concerned with their economic sustainability. They argued that interactive voice response (IVR) that allows computers to interact with humans, and call centers are the most costly information delivery mechanisms. And since farmers’ willingness to pay for agronomic information tends to be low, any business model that depends on IVR or call centers may need some other funding alternatives for sustenance. So the key question to ask is, if there are any indications that farmers’ willingness-to-pay will increase to the point of equilibrium with the cost of these services?

Another view is to go automatically with IVR without any real time human input, which can empower farmers directly to search and find information they need, or feed the system with information they have through voice technology. Some examples of systems currently exploring this system includes Voice Browsing Acceptance and Trust (VBAT), Web Alliance for Re-greening in Africa (W4RA), and Voice-based Community-Centric Mobile Services (VOICES).

And so What?

The need to take some of the existing mobile agricultural services from one level to another has been acknowledged. Even though partnering with a MNO is not a magic wand to scaling of these projects, the potentials for such a partnership as noted in the discussion of question one, and the barriers outlined above may necessitate collaboration for scaling.

The issues of intermediaries that dominated the second part of the discussion is a good example for experts (both from MNOs and agricultural partners) to understand all the complexities with mobile agricultural services. It is more than technology. It is about using the right technology at the right time to deliver content in the right format for users. It is about combining social and technological processes to deliver user-centered content.

The success story of IKSL in India came up again to attest to the fact that, partnership can help in scaling mobile agricultural services. But the success of IKSL is linked to the partnership with IFFCO, a 40 year old co-operative that has a strong base with the users. The idea of working towards removing human intermediaries in mobile agricultural system can me catastrophic. The citing of Direct2Farm project of CABI which aims at enabling farmers to seek and source information, tailor-made to their individual need, at any time in any form/format sounds great. But a search on this Direct2Farm project does not give any further information.

We will have to wait to see how this works – either through the automatic IVR system or the CABI’s Direct2Farm project. But I believe the consensus at the end of the discussion is that the technological intermediaries are not to replace the human intermediaries but to be used in stages of the value chain where the human intermediaries are not needed. I agree with another contributor who stated that “The issue is to remove people where they are not critical, so that services can increase in quality, quantity, and efficiency.”

The next in series (3rd) is Reflections on mAg Services: Is there a Business Case for Serving Farmers? and available on 12/29/2011.

The first post is “Reflections on mAg Services: Partnerships Between MNOs and APs”

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