The earth is projected to be home to more than nine billion people by mid-century, and up to 12 billion by 2100… that’s a lot of mouths to feed. Farmers, as a result, are facing a reality that may be tough to swallow.
"They must produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed a growing, more urbanised population. And they must do so, facing the likelihood that arable land in developing countries will increase by no more than 12%,” according to a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The obvious question is: How?
Alloysius Attah, 25, is turning his attention to smallholder farmers, half a billion strong worldwide, who currently feed one-third of humanity. In his home country of Ghana, smallholder farmers account for 80% of domestic food production.
Having grown up on a two-acre farm run by his aunt, Attah sees great potential in these small-scale food producers.
It’s no ordinary nostalgia: with existing technology, the gap between achievable yields and actual yields in Ghana can be over 50%, taking into account post-harvest losses.
At Farmerline, we help smallholder farmers produce and sell more food so that they can make more money for themselves to invest into their farms and also to support their families. That’s our basic and core mission," said Attah.
"Currently how we’re doing that is by using mobile technology to create a communication platform for small-scale farmers and the organisations and stakeholders that work with them."
Farmerline, which launched in 2013, works with more than 5,000 farmers across seven regions in Ghana. Every week, farmers in the network receive technical advice on topics such as how much fertilizer to apply to their fields or how much feed to drop into their fish ponds, as well as location-specific weather forecasts, directly to their mobile phones.
According to World Bank data, Ghana has higher rates of mobile cellular telephone subscriptions than Spain, Australia, France, and many other countries – 108 for every 100 people.
Coverage is available across most of the country: as many as two-thirds of Ghana’s rural residents have access to mobile phones.
But what sets Farmerline apart from competitors is that its tips and instructions are delivered not by SMS, but by voice.
"SMS has done a lot of work on the continent – look at Ushahidi and M-Psea – but when it comes to rural Africa, to rural farming communities, its abilities are really limited," said Attah, explaining that the majority of farmers he works with can neither read nor write.
The latest figures from the government’s statistical service show that more than 75% of adults in Ghana’s food production center, the rural savannah, are illiterate. Illiteracy rates are nearly 50% in areas like the rural forest and rural coast, where three-quarters of households participate in agricultural activities.
In Ghana, government agricultural extension agents are tasked with training smallholders and helping them sell their harvest, but the challenge is that each agent is responsible for 2,000 farmers. "They are not able to reach farmers on a continuous basis, but farmers need them every single day to exchange ideas, to ask them questions," said Attah.
Farmerline, available in 12 local languages, essentially digitises the work of extension agents.
The program is effective because, while powered by mobile phones, the information is always relevant to a farmer’s specific situation.
The Farmerline team, with direct support from agriculture extension agents, hosts in-person workshops in farming communities each season to establish trust; answer questions about the technology, market conditions and distribution channels; and offer financial training.
"We train them to keep records, encourage them separate farm and household expenses, and put a value on their time on the farm so they can pay themselves a salary and know whether they’re making a profit," Attah said.
Follow-up visits are scheduled every six to eight weeks.
Smallholders in the Farmerline network, most of whom are women, increase their income by an average of 55.6%, according to the most recent impact assessment.
Attah and his co-founder, Emmanuel Owusu Addai, hope to reach more than two million farmers in the next 10 years by scaling up across Africa and Asia.
"We were trying to build the next Facebook, or the next big technology, and make money for ourselves. But it’s actually more honorable – and possible – to build services and solutions for people who live on less than $2 per day and help them take the next steps in their lives," Attah said.
"Becoming social entrepreneurs just happened by trying to make a little change in our corners."
Find out more about this year’s cohort of Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs.
-By John Townsend, media manager at Ashoka Changemaker. You can follow John on twitter here @JohnCTownsend.