Can Text Messages End Poverty in Africa?

Can SMS text messaging end poverty in Africa?

Most people living in industrialized nations associate text messaging with some kind of social activity. But in parts of Africa, texting literally has the potential to save lives.

As many as 20 million people face possible starvation in sub-Saharan Africa, which appears to be getting the brunt of climate change.

Severe drought is devastating parts of the continent, where the leading form of employment is agriculture, mostly on a subsistence level — meaning the farmers grow just enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Rain in Africa

These smaller farmers get their water from rainfall and lack the means to obtain additional irrigation. The reliance on rain means that having accurate weather forecasts might make the difference between starvation and earning a living.

Yet the kind of weather forecasts that we almost take for granted have never reached farmers in sub-Saharan Africa until relatively recently — due to the combined forces of their remoteness, low literacy rates and lack of Internet access.

But now African farmers are finally getting the chance to anticipate and plan for changing weather conditions, thanks to the advent of several text-messaging services.

These services reach farmers using even the most primitive mobile phones, without requiring any special downloads or app installations. Best of all, they cost farmers next to nothing to use.

Ignitia

And they are recouping otherwise lost revenues — one of the texting companies, Ignitia, has helped farmers in seven African nations see income increase by about 80%.

Ignitia currently serves farmers in its home country of Ghana, along with Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire. The company plans to expand into western Africa and tropical regions on other continents by the end of 2018.

The company has so far sent about 8.5 million text messages containing weather forecasts that have been about two-and-a-half times as accurate as those offered by global weather forecasting services.

The difference has to do with the hyperlocal focus of Ignitia’s forecasting — “accurate forecasts 307 days out of 365,” says the company’s website. “Global models are only right 39% of the time. That means they are wrong more than half the time.”Ignitia has helped farmers in seven African nations see income increase by about 80%. Click To Tweet

Ignitia works with local telecommunications providers to format messages for each country’s mobile protocols and also to tap into farmers’ specific locations via GPS.

That enables the transmission of very localized rain forecasts each morning. These messages come in native dialects that are simplified to cater to regional literacy rates.

These forecasts help farmers better time their planting to sync up with whenever rain finally arrives. This information also aids in the timing of fertilizer and pesticide applications — especially important given the state of the soil and insect population in this part of the world.

iCow

Meanwhile, two other services deliver a much broader range of information to farmers. One of them is iCow, which addresses livestock, agricultural finance and crop production.

Serving farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania, iCow transmits text messages to farmers who can navigate a menu of topics via their mobile phones.

The texting service includes content provided by subject matter experts such as veterinarians  iCow is also working on with a microfinance company on bundling services. Here’s how the company explains this arrangement: “By bundling iCow with their products they are not only adding value to their customer, but also reducing their risk of non-perfoming loans. A knowledgeable farmer is less of a risk than a farmer without adequate production knowledge.”

WeFarm

Another service in this space has more of a peer-to-peer approach to text messaging and is free of charge to farmers: WeFarm, which operates in Kenya, Uganda and Peru.

Farmers signed up for WeFarm can ask questions and receive answers about all aspects of agriculture, livestock and related business issues.

As of this writing, the service has 157,100 registered farmers who together have shared and received 20.6 million messages.

The Revenue Model

WeFarm markets itself to companies involved in the agricultural supply chain, offering both advertising opportunities and subscriptions. As the company’s website explains, “We collect all data shared by SMS in order to analyze the real challenges faced by smallholder farmers and map trends and issues such as drought, disease or crop diversification. By disagregating this information, we can help organizations provide appropriate support and drive sustainable change.”

We can only hope that WeFarm, iCow and Ignitia drive sustainable change among farmers close to the equator, and do so in time to avoid dire consequences. Whether their efforts will ultimately result in an end to poverty in Africa certainly remains to be seen, but we look forward to learning about their progress in that vein.

Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your opinions about the issues raised in this article — please share them in the comments section.

P.S. – If you liked this article, we hope you’ll check out what we offer in the way of a SMS text service — please click here to learn more.

  • Ulrike Ruppelt

    Aren’t there services addressing poverty from other angles — like what Unicef is doing, by encouraging donations to be sent that way?