Reflections on mAg. Services: Mistakes and Pitfalls of MNOs/NGOs

Photo Credit: HD Guru

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

Question 6: What are some of the common mistakes or pitfalls mobile operators or NGOs run into when developing these services?

Below is a quick summary of the contributions from the forum.

Building “FOR” Users: The first post to the question raised an interesting point by arguing that when the MNOs and NGOs have the goal to develop the service “for” the user without understanding the needs of the users and involving them, usually leads to a failure. Citing Richard Heeks, the post explained that in order to avoid these pitfalls, MNOs/NGOs first need to i) identify the development objective of the project/service; ii) identify the new and/or re-engineered information requirements needed to meet those objectives; and iii) identify the role that ICTs and other information-handling technologies have to play in meeting those information requirements.

A related post from a software developer agreed with the point and argued that ICT software or application development should be a user-centric approach, whereby developers collaborate and work closely with users or some categories of stakeholders.

Putting All Bets on Mobile Phones: A second mistake pointed out was, when NGOs and other development/commercial projects put all their bets on mobile phones. Like any other technology, mobile phones are “effect multiplier” and it only works when there is an underlying robust system (either an agro-advisory or private extension) which in effects get multiplied. If there is no underlying system or process and mobile phones are just introduced, as a magic bullet, it seldom works.

Lack of Understanding the Complexities with Content: Most often MNOs especially underestimate the complexities associated with sourcing and aggregating content, and designing the content management system that can meet farmer’s localized content needs but at the same time scalable.

Failure to Design Services for Scale: Another pitfall that is linked to scale is ensuring that services are designed from the start to enable scale – such as using efficient technologies, working with partners who have existing assets such as marketing and distributing capabilities so you can reach a large number of farmers cost-effectively.

Ignoring the Trust Factor: Utility VAS needs high degree of “trust factor” in the user’s mind in order to make the user stick-on to the service even if it does not bring in any instant benefit to them. A case in point is IKSL service in India, which is backed up with the goodwill of IFFCO, the largest and most preferred fertilizer supplier in India.

MNOs Using Traditional Marketing Channels for Farmers: The marketing channels of mobile agricultural services need to be different from a conventional entertainment VAS. Conventional promotions like push SMS or Out Bound Diallers (OBD) not necessarily convince a farmer to subscribe to a mobile agro-advisory. Alternative channels, like affiliation to farmers groups, bundling with agri-inputs, customization to contract farming etc. are some of the innovative approaches which have been tried in India.

Focusing only on Information Service: MNOs and NGOs also need to design their services keeping in mind that information alone does not solve all problems of farmers. An information-service which links various service delivery agents like, agri-input marketers, warehouses, laboratories etc. will have better attractiveness for farmers in comparison to simple information push.

Problem of Distinguishing between Demand Analysis and Needs Assessment: One problem that NGOs have that MNOs usually don’t have is distinguishing between a demand analysis and needs assessment. NGOs often conduct needs assessment which documents what farmers say they need but it does not have the discipline needed in a business analysis. If NGOs are to provide such services, they need to prioritize features that they will provide and sort out which are valuable enough for someone to pay for.

Sources of Funding for NGOs: NGOs are often funded by donors on a project basis.  This can easily drive them to a project orientation, especially when donors call for “success stories” and do not have the incentive nor the process to follow up after a project to see if a service they have supported is continuing and scaling.

NGOs for Development versus MNOs for Business

There was a concern about why the question under discussion had grouped MNOs and NGOs together since their perspectives and the pitfalls they face may be quite different. Interestingly, there was a contribution that separated these two areas and then grouped NGOs together with the development sector and MNOs together with business/private sector. While some of the responses also grouped the mistakes and pitfalls accordingly, others combined them.

NGOs Taking One-Sided Stand: A contributor sharing his experience pointed out that mostly people in development sector (NGOs) take a one-sided stand, when it comes to developing services for people. While it is very important to design services that would deliver certain benefits to the community from pure development point of view, it is also very important to see how the same benefits will continue to reach the community even after the development intervention has stopped. This call for a business case for development work and many NGO-s and development agencies do not consider this as a key factor while designing mobile services.

MNOs Taking One-Sided Stand: Mobile Network Operators also make mistake by considering agro-advisory services to operate on the same principles of other value added services (mVAS) like entertainment or news. While the target customer segments for both may be same, the decision factors for subscribing to such services are completely different.

Other common mistakes that MNOs/ NGOs make are:

  • Not profiling the customers
  • Not properly identifying the information needs of customers
  • Wrong customer acquisition – customer not having interest in the service
  • Extending services where network is not strong
  • Content not having relevance to the local conditions
  • Not being fully aware of the telecom regulation policies of their geographic area.

NB: This is the final in series of six post on the subject “Reflections on Mobile Agricultural Services”. The earlier posts can be located through the links below:

1: Reflections on mAg Services: Partnerships Between MNOs and APs

2: Reflections on mAg. Services: Barriers to Scale

3: Reflections on mAg Services: Is there a Business Case for Serving Farmers?

4: Reflections on mAg Services: Financial Sustainability

5: Reflections on mAg Services: Content Sourcing, Quality Assurance & Dissemination

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