Charles Dhewa loved to write about agriculture, especially soil and crops. In early 2000 he decided to turn his words into action by becoming a cattle and horticulture farmer in Zimbabwe. He bought a small farm in Marondera, a town about an hour’s drive from the capital, Harare. His experience as a farmer enriched his writing, as he articulated issues in agriculture in ways that appealed to smallholder farmers. He soon became the communications expert for the Zimbabwe Farmers Union.
But Mr. Dhewa later changed jobs when he was hired as a local consultant for the British-funded Crop Post Harvest Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, an agency that supports poor smallholder farmers. Over the next 10 years he witnessed the power of the mobile phone and how people were using it to improve communication in agriculture and rural development. “Why not start a platform to link farmers, traders, financial institutions, input suppliers and policy makers in Zimbabwe?” he asked himself.
In 2012, Mr. Dhewa’s knowledge systems company, Knowledge Transfer Africa, combined with Afrosoft Holdings, a software development company, to launch the service eMkambo, which is the first initiative in Zimbabwe to serve agriculture through information and communications technology (ICT). The service, whose name means “market” in isiNdebele, a Zimbabwean language, is an interactive knowledge-sharing platform for the agriculture sector.
Before eMkambo’s launch, Zimbabwe’s technological developments had been stymied by a decade of economic and political problems. But a US$140,000 grant from a Dutch donor, Hivos, in 2012, provided Mr. Dhewa with seed investment. He created a database of farmers by collecting their mobile phone numbers as well as data on farming areas and the types of commodities produced. “Though farmers had mobile phones, they did not know where to get information on agriculture to engage meaningfully,” he says. “It was not enough to have a mobile phone.”
The next step was to convince Zimbabwe’s three mobile service providers—Econet Wireless, NetOne and Telecel—to provide agriculture content. Mr. Dhewa’s pitch was that this would lure people to buy more airtime. “Farmers and agro-dealers in Zimbabwe were starved of tailored information and fast connections with other role-players in the industry,” he says. The mobile phone service providers, though initially reluctant, later bought the idea.
Mr. Dhewa was eager to debunk claims that agriculture is not a lucrative business. As he rolled out his plan, “Agriculture pays” became his tag line, and those farmers, traders and agro-dealers who began benefiting from using the platform easily believed him.
eMkambo has spread like wildfire in Zimbabwe due largely to an enabling environment. Almost 50% of Zimbabwe’s land mass consists of communal farming areas, where 70% of the population resides, and smallholder farmers work on average plot sizes of about two hectares, according to the Integrated Regional Information Network, a UN humanitarian news service.
A farmer’s call centre
On eMkambo’s platform, physical markets, mobile phones and Web-based virtual spaces are integrated in a web of communication. The platform takes advantage of large, informal agricultural markets in suburbs such as those in Mbare, Harare; Emalaleni, Bulawayo and Sakubva, Mutare. Take a typical scenario: Barbara Dongo, a farmer in Honde Valley in the eastern province of Manicaland, wants to harvest her tomatoes and sell them at Mbare Musika, the largest informal market in Harare, 300 kms away. She phones eMkambo, the call costing about $0.10 per minute, for information on the cost of a crate of tomatoes and the number of traders at Mbare Musika.
An eMkambo information officer checks price trends and volume. She gets quick feedback: “There is a glut of tomatoes at Mbare and prices are going down.” She realizes the price could plummet, and that there is a real possibility her tomatoes could rot, causing huge waste on top of the transport costs. But through eMkambo she quickly learns that there is a shortage of tomatoes in Masvingo, a town 275km away from Honde Valley. She is connected with a trader at Tafara Market in Masvingo who is willing to come and fetch her tomatoes in Honde Valley. The price is agreed upon and the deal is sealed.
In such a scenario, an eMkambo information officer in Honde Valley will usually come to Ms. Dongo’s field to monitor harvesting and packaging while a trader from Masvingo comes to collect the produce. During the transaction Ms. Dongo and the officer will continue their communication through mobile phones.
In this example Ms. Dongo, the trader and the information officer used phone lines registered with eMkambo and the mobile service provider. The revenue from airtime usage during the conversation is shared between eMkambo and the service provider, in line with an earlier agreement between them. “This transaction would not have been smooth without eMkambo, as the Masvingo trader and Ms. Dongo did not previously know each other,” says Mr. Dhewa.
In addition, eMkambo has developed a networked agriculture call centre linking at least 20 markets around Zimbabwe via mobile phones. Mr. Dhewa says that about 100,000 stakeholders—farmers, buyers, agro-dealers, traders, transporters, financial institutions, input suppliers, policy makers and general consumers—are using the service to understand, in an informal way, agricultural markets.
Mr. Dhewa’s next plan is to consolidate all currently scattered information on nongovernmental organisations, parastatals, farmers’ organisations, government departments, commodity buyers, transporters, financial institutions, individual farmers, etc. The information pool will consist of such data as the price and type of crops and the location and expiry dates of perishable commodities. “There is value in bringing all this information together and creatively interpreting it for various users and as such eliminating inefficiencies in agricultural marketing. This will lead to improved incomes for smallholder farmers and other value chain actors,” he says.
The eMkambo platform has shown that peasant farmers can afford—and are fast to understand—a new technology. “As long as there is need, peasant farmers can punch through any technological barrier,” says Mr. Dhewa. “No matter what we think of them, peasant farmers are businesspeople.”
However, not all smallholder farmers have been convinced to use eMkambo. And mobile service providers have been slow to understand the need for service upgrades to enhance user-friendliness. Mr. Dhewa says he will continue to strive for the full support of mobile phone service providers. “Our strength is mainly in content.… A lot of content in Africa is still to find its way into the digital world.”
Nevertheless, Rangarirai Mberi, head of Zimbabwe’s Econet Wireless communications group, told Africa Renewal that his company is open to working with any developers with innovations that can help the country, adding that there is huge potential for ICT in agriculture. Econet Wireless has over 5.6 million subscribers, representing more than 70% of the country’s mobile market. The company has been successful with EcoCash, a system of mobile money transfer like Kenya’s famous M-Pesa. Mr. Mberi believes his company can also succeed in agriculture.
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, which issues licences in the postal and telecommunications sector, reports that the country has more than 7.8 million mobile subscribers. With such a huge subscriber base, there is potential to expand the market for eMkambo. Limbikani Makani, the editor of Technology Zimbabwe, an online magazine, also foresees that eMkambo will attract a lot more farmers if the platform continues to deliver timely and reliable information. “While people need information, they need it consistently in order to rely on it,” he says.
Because the strength of his platform is mainly data collection and analysis for decision-making, Mr. Dhewa intends to collaborate with government policy makers. “Policy makers need ideas and insights from creative entrepreneurs, through ICT. You can do anything in Zimbabwe as long as you have the foresight, insight, hindsight and oversight.”
Meantime, Mr. Dhewa is planning to have financial institutions and small- to medium-scale enterprises start interacting on eMkambo. He hopes that this will attract many young people to farming. Already there are indications that some banks would like to support traders at large informal agricultural markets in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare—Zimbabwe’s three biggest cities—before the end of the year.
This is an age of mobile information, according to Mr. Makani and it appears that Mr. Dhewa, the mobile companies and the farmers are in a win-win relationship. Mr. Dhewa is reaping income and recognition from his initiative; the telecom companies, while making money from SMS and phone calls, also feel they are contributing to society; and for some Zimbabwean farmers life is just getting better.