Accessing Information through Mobile Technology Gives Smallholder Farmers Much-Needed Support
Walking through the streets of India, it’s hard not to notice the plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables that line the sidewalks, pretty much everywhere you go. Just a short 30-minute drive out of the city center lands you in acres of cultivated fields where many of these crops originate.
Roughly 50 percent of India’s workforce is devoted to agriculture. This demographic is common in many other emerging and frontier countries where a dominant proportion of the population relies on farming for its livelihood. Smallholder farmer is a title given to people who own less than five acres of arable land. The vast majority of smallholder farmers live in a cyclical pattern of poverty as they struggle to access markets and sell their products at the best price. Lack of market access means that farmers often lose money, even in a high growth season, and a perfectly good harvest goes to waste. With such a fragmented system in rural areas, it is extremely challenging for farmers to generate a profit to support themselves and their families.
Lack of market access means that farmers often lose money, even in a high growth season, and a perfectly good harvest goes to waste. With such a fragmented system in rural areas, it is extremely challenging for farmers to generate a profit to support themselves and their families.
Smallholder farmers are not insignificant. Collectively, they represent 500 million farms around the world and employ approximately 2 billion people. They are responsible for about 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As the global population size charges toward an estimated 9 billion by 2050, the demand on smallholder farmers to increase crop yield will only continue to rise, along with the critical need to mitigate post-harvest losses. Analysts predict that food access will need to increase by 70 percent to feed 2 billion additional people on the planet, and production in developing countries would need to almost double. Food security is a global issue, and one that requires partnerships across all sectors to solve.
This summer, together with my colleague Karen Barnett, I traveled to India with the Sustainable Innovation MBA program at the University of Vermont to understand how business is helping farmers increase food productivity and market access. As India’s first certified B Corp, eKutir is a for-profit enterprise committed to deliver on a social mission. It uses information communications technology (ICT) to connect smallholder farmers with the entire agricultural supply chain through its services. Custom mobile technology applications enable smallholder farmers to increase their crops yields, lower costs, and gain greater access to local and regional markets. eKutir works closely with farming cooperatives to understand farmers’ needs and determine the best strategies to sell more and waste less.
In the one month Karen and I spent on the ground in and around the eastern city of Orissa, we visited several farming communities and spoke with various farmers to understand the challenges they face and learn from their perspectives. When speaking with farmers in the Odisha Province about their crop season, it occurred to us that many farmers face similar issues. For instance, according to Sanatan Sahoo, “In October through December, many farmers planted tomatoes and we all suffered losses because the quantity was so huge… Tomatoes were dumped and started rotting,” Sanatan recounted.
To respond to these market failures, eKutir uses its technology to help farmers like Sanatan expand their reach and connect them with markets outside of the 50km radius within which they are currently limited to selling. Sanatan has been working on and off with eKutir for many years and shared some of the reasons why he appreciates the service. He told us, “eKutir has helped us access more markets by being able to sell our produce in Bhubaneswar, and helping us access information and technology to grow more food and produce a higher return.”
To respond to these market failures, eKutir uses its technology to help farmers like Sanatan expand their reach and connect them with markets outside of the 50km radius within which they are currently limited to selling.
Numerous factors affecting smallholder farmers complicate their ability to accurately forecast the growing season. eKutir is developing an app that sources data from food cooperatives and businesses to accurately track crop information to aid in the sale and purchase of crops. Through the app, consumers can search for produce at the regulated market price and then choose a specific amount to purchase. The technology allows farmers to expand their network and sell to buyers who are more distant.
During our time in India, Karen and I were struck by the complexity of the agriculture system and the many challenges farmers face. Weather, soil, and market demands can fluctuate greatly from year to year, leaving farmers vulnerable and at risk of suffering huge losses in any given season. This problem doesn’t just exist in India. It’s a global issue requiring international support. For eKutir, this is only the beginning. It plans to expand services throughout India and eventually into other countries where smallholder farmers face similar challenges in accessing information. As more businesses and organizations come on board to collectively tackle food insecurity, the potential is limitless.