A ‘connected’ farmer is sharing information with a ‘non-connected’ farmer in his community. / USAID/Pakistan

A ‘connected’ farmer is sharing information with a ‘non-connected’ farmer in his community. / USAID/Pakistan

Spend five minutes on any busy street in Pakistan and you will think that you are in one of the most connected countries in the world. Most people, regardless of economic class, have a mobile phone, and farmers are no exception. Most of these farmers live in isolated remote communities which can be prone to major natural disasters and violence from militants. These communities have extremely poor infrastructure, almost no public transportation, and little access to basic financial services. Mobile phone coverage, however, penetrates into some of the most remote areas of Pakistan, reaching otherwise isolated rural communities.

For these communities, mobile phones are a lifeline. Recognizing this, USAID Pakistan has partnered with the regional government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Telenor, an international mobile network operator in Pakistan, to create and deliver tailored mobile solutions to get information to peach and potato growers as well as fisheries in Swat Valley.

By delivering real-time information about market prices and new techniques, weather forecasting, and diversified financial services via mobile technology, the service helps Pakistani farmers and hatchery managers improve productivity and get better returns on their investments. As their incomes increase through more informed decision making, they are able to invest in better quality inputs and equipment.

Around 1,500 people are included in the pilot project, which is focused on testing and scaling up what works to ensure that the program’s digital development tools meet participant’s needs.

A farmer participating in the USAID pilot program is reading a text alert on best farming practice. / USAID/Pakistan

A farmer participating in the USAID pilot program is reading a text alert on best farming practice. / USAID/Pakistan

The project provides two basic services. First, it sends alerts to mobile phones to provide farmers with tips and advice in their local language, helping them to increase the quality and quantity of their production. Participants can also use their mobile phones to access recorded advisories from an interactive voice response (IVR). In a country where the literacy rate is low, voice-based services address the difficulties faced by those unable to read or write.

These text and voice services provide a wide range of information. Weather forecasts help them decide when to plant, irrigate and harvest. Information on market prices and consumer trends help them understand which products will yield the highest returns for their efforts. Farmers also receive technical advice on how to fight pests or diseases, improve farming practices for more sustainable agriculture, and apply processing techniques that reduce food wastage. They can learn about regulations, available subsidies and local fairs.

Fresh potatoes from the farms in Swat / USAID/Pakistan

Fresh potatoes from the farms in Swat / USAID/Pakistan

Initial feedback from the pilot is promising. More than 90 percent of the participants who received the messages said that they were well-timed and useful, and three quarters have adopted the service’s recommended practices. Subscribers also reported that they shared the information with non-subscribed farmers, underscoring the value of the information and quadrupling the project’s reach.

As a corollary to the project, mobile financial services, including remittances, mobile banking and value-added services like crop insurance are also being introduced. This will help boost food production, improve livelihoods and incomes and introduce technological solutions to improve efficiency in the agricultural supply chain.

By analyzing calls Pakistani farmers place to the IVR service, agricultural specialists and research organizations can build an accurate picture of the challenges rural farmers face and the evolving trends in Pakistani agriculture.

At its core, mobile agriculture is about putting information into farmers’ hands and empowering them through sustainable and scalable solutions. The hope is that the success of this partnership will encourage and enable other private sector players to enter the market, contributing to a well-informed and more prosperous farming community throughout the country. It is also expected that these innovations will create new economic opportunities in this politically sensitive region, where financial stability is an essential factor in the region’s overall resilience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shehla Rizwan is Development Outreach and Communications Specialist for USAID/Pakistan