Dialling in to phone initiative

Self Help AfricaMalawi, News

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There has been exceptionally strong take-up for a new mobile phone-based agriculture information system rolled out by Self Help Africa in Malawi.

Launched just weeks ago, the system has to-date been accessed by over 85,000 unique phone users across the country. At present, the platform provides advice on two crops – maize and peanuts – but advice on further crops will be added in the coming weeks.

“This has far exceeded our expectations,” says Self Help Africa country director Amos Zaindi. “We have been looking for a platform to allow us scale out the advice that we have been giving smallholder farmers across the country for years.

These initial results show just how keen farmers are to get this advice, to allow them to grow more and sell more.” The system, known as 321, is a an on-demand information system offering audio and text messaging advice and marketing information to extension workers and farmers.

The system allows poor farmers to access this information for free on the Airtel network up to four times each month. Thereafter, calls are charged at about one-third the normal phone rate.

Seed funded by Self Help Africa’s US office, with additional funding from the LinkedIn Foundation, the service allows farmers to dial into a series of pre-recorded messages in their own language. “They simply dial 321 on their phones to access audio services, send an SMS to 321 with a code of the crop they want advice on or punch *321#,” says Mr Zaindi.

“They’re brought through a range of options, depending on what crop they’re planting, the time of the season, and the growing conditions that they face. It’s a way of getting specific technical advice to farmers in their own language and through the medium of a phone which can’t support internet access.”

With further funding from USAID and the Global Mobile Association (GSMA), Self Help Africa is now expanding the service, adding information on new crops such as; soya, pigeon peas, rice, beans and assorted vegetables and livestock including chickens, goats, cattle and rabbits to the advice line and setting up a dedicated national call center, which will see farmers receiving in-person advice from farming specialists, again on a no-cost basis.

“For the mobile phone company, Airtel, this is a CSR initiative, but it also represents a way of adding subscriber loyalty,” said Mr Zaindi. “For Self Help Africa and the organizations we’re partnering with on this initiative, it represents a really low-cost way of transmitting vital farming information to hundreds of thousands of farmers throughout Malawi.” Self Help Africa is currently in discussions with other mobile phone networks across Africa to duplicate the service.  Read more here.