With around 72% of Rwanda’s population engaged in agriculture, it is the landlocked country’s main economic generator. However, for smallholder Irish Potato farmers, financial services are hard to access.

Many farmers living in rural settings lack basic information about the market, and due to poor internet coverage, even lack consistent weather forecasts. They also have difficulties opening bank accounts, let alone accessing loans to expand their agri-businesses. Similarly, financial service providers struggle to reach these farmers, which leads to a gap in accurate knowledge of local agriculture.

Without the means to afford simple agricultural tools, they cannot harvest enough yield to generate more income. Therefore, the cycle of subsistence farming continues, with people unable to plow themselves (or their families) out of a hand-to-mouth existence.

Bridging the gap with mobile technology
To bridge the much-needed gap between farmers and access to information and financial services, SPARK, in cooperation with the AFR fund, developed an integrated mobile technology known as the IPoVaF Mobile Platform.

Uniquely, the platform does not require the use of a smartphone, it does not even require access to internet data. It was specifically developed for simple mobile phones, which are readily available, affordable and already in-use by the majority of rural farmers.

The technology uses USSD messaging, which does not charge any fees. By dialing *847# on a phone with a MTN SIM card and following the instructions, farmers can access all of the platform’s features in the local language.

Special features for farmers
The tool provides agricultural information about the Irish Potato value chain, as well as local weather forecasts. A personalised dashboard allows individuals to keep track their harvest and sales records, which can be kept as bankable data to access loans through financial institutions. Direct access to agri-finance information enables farmers to borrow and save from finance institutions using their mobile phones, anytime, anywhere, without having to step foot inside a bank!

Group chat facilities allows individual farmers to connect, and farming cooperatives to stay in touch more easily. Jean Baptiste Gahamanyi is the Secretary of the KOTIMURWE cooperative, located in Rwerere Sector, Burera District.

“I can send meeting invitations to the cooperative members, chat and share information, without worrying about costs. It is completely free! We can even use these messages to prepare farmers for the agricultural seasons, without needed to call for a meeting. Most importantly, the platform helps to keep our cooperative farmers’ sales and IPCC records secure.”

Benefits for cooperatives
Much of SPARK’s work in the Irish Potato value chain has focused upon cooperative development among farmers. In partnership with technology service provider, N-Frnds, we recently organised a one-day training for 192 farmers in how to use the IPoVaF Mobile Platform.

The farmers hail from 64 independent Irish Potato cooperatives across 4 districts: Burera and Musanze of the Northern Province, and Nyabihu and Rubavu of the Western Province of Rwanda. Each cooperative sent 3 representatives to attend the training, and these members were able to pass on their new knowledge to the other cooperative members.

Damien Bizimana (pictured right), President of the Abahinzi b’Ibirayi ba Nyonirima cooperative in Musanze District, said that the platform has come just in time. “It has improved our cooperative communication.” The platform’s group chat feature seeks to improve transparency, group solidarity and cohesion among rural farmers and the leaders of their cooperatives.

Therese Nikuze (pictured far left), a cooperative member, said: “As a farmer, this tool has helped me in planning my farming. By being able to check the weather in the last three months, I’ve saved money and increased my productivity”.

Over 7000 farmers now subscribed
Word has spread since the training of the 192 cooperative representatives. The IPoVaF Mobile Platform has now reached over 7000 subscribers! In March 2019, we hope to reach even more people through an outreach event.

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