Kyla Yeoman

The Social Network for Smallholder Farmers : From fertilizer tips to the best seeds, connecting farmers to accurate info

Pak Haji Muhyi has been rice farming for almost 30 years, but even with his experience he has fallen victim to unscrupulous suppliers, who misinformed him about seed varieties, costing him an entire harvest.

Pak Haji is from Indonesia’s Karawang District, which has two planting seasons annually: a long season with more rain, and a shorter season with less rain. Specific varieties of rice are needed for each. When Pak Haji was sold “long-life” seeds for the short season, they did not mature by the end of the rains. It was a complete loss.

How can smallholder farmers like Pak get accurate information to protect their investments and improve their productivity? The answer could lie in mobile phones.

Pak Haji bought his first mobile phone in 2011, and this year his agricultural extension officer introduced to the concept of mobile information services. He registered.

LISA, the mobile social network platform that Pak registered for, allows registered farmers to ask agriculture experts and other farmers questions through SMS (text) messages. It was created by Mercy Corps’ partner 8Villages as part of the aid agency’s Agri-Fin Mobile program.

LISA also “pushes” suggestions to farmers. Pak has received advice on fertilizer and protection against disease and pests. LISA can also advise on where to find and identify correct seed varieties, which could save Pak in the future from making the same mistake.

For the 58-years-old rural farmer, who left school at sixth grade, integrating new technologies into his farming practice has its challenges. Pak leaves for the fields after dawn prayers, comes home for midday prayers, then heads back to the field and works there until 5 p.m. He rarely thinks to bring his phone with him, preferring not to be disturbed and not to bring his fragile reading glasses to the fields—which he needs to read the text messages.

Pak Haji is also used to talking in person—or on the phone—rather than sending messages, since he finds manipulating the little buttons difficult with his farming hands. But he’s getting LISA tips as saved messages that he can read later. He’s also talking with his neighbor farmers, who are also on the network.

During this initial testing of LISA, Mercy Corps is learning of the key role that young farmers play in introducing new technologies to rural farming communities. According to Pak, although all of the farmers in his group were registered and trained on how to use the service, some farmers are just more comfortable using phones and are happy to share information.

“Young farmers are the future,” according to Pak. “They should be targeted for these new technologies.”

Agricultural extension agents are also specifically selecting some farmers to serve as role models. They act as conduits of information, too–sharing helpful LISA tips by word of mouth with farmers like Pak or those who don’t own mobile phones, as well as sending in questions on behalf of farmers to be answered by LISA experts.

Pak has already put into practice recent LISA tips to use environmentally-friendly pesticides. In the past, he and other farmers preferred strong pesticides that were killing the natural predators of the pests, as well, resulting in an even worse pest problems. With LISA recommended chemicals that target pests and diseases without killing predators, Pak and other farmers can achieve much greater crop yields.

Kyla Yeoman is the program manager for Global Envision, a blog managed by Mercy Corps focused on market-based solutions to poverty. Mercy Corps is a NextBillion Content Partner.

Agriculture, Technology