Ebay against hunger

How an app supports crop sales for rural smallholder farmers in Zambia

Sandra Kreutzer
Dec 20, 2017 · 5 min read

Smallholder farmers around the world are often forced to sell their harvests below market value due to a lack of market and pricing information. A new app by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is going to change this.

60 percent less income than in the capital: rural smallholder farmers like the families of Mumbwa had almost no access to real-time market information. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

Bags of cowpeas are neatly packed, stacked and ready to be picked-up at the entrance of a rural village in Mumbwa, 200 kilometres away from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. But the families who produce and sell them to traders from Lusaka receive less than half of the price in the capital. The reason: They simply do not know the real market value of their crops and which traders pay best. Approximately 500,000 rural smallholder families in Zambia are in a similar situation. Worldwide, almost 500 million farmers in developing countries lack accurate, reliable and real-time market information as well as connectivity with other buyers. Families thus struggle to generate income and build savings in times of drought. The result is persistently high levels of poverty and hunger.

Three WFP employees and a social entrepreneur from Tanzania want to change this. In 2016, they joined a 10-days boot camp hosted by the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich, Germany, the hub to develop innovative solutions against hunger. With them they brought the idea of an app helping rural farmers to achieve higher prices and become more independent. “Digital and financial technologies have revolutionised industries in rich-world economies,” says Evin Joyce, co-creator and WFP’s manager of Maano in Zambia. “Customising these technologies to agriculture in Africa can create equally impressive change. What we need to ask is ‘How quickly?’, and ‘Who will this change benefit most?’ If the world is to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030, we must answer ‘as soon as possible’ and ‘those furthest behind first’.”

WFP employees build the app together with IT experts and the support from the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich. Photos: WFP/Photolibrary

At the end of the boot camp, Maano was born. This Virtual Farmers’ Market App is based on the same logic as other exchange platforms such as Ebay or AirBnB. Smallholder farmers can retrieve real-time market information provided by WFP and advertise their minimum price. Traders then can view the offers, make a bid, and once the farmer accepts, the traders make a payment to WFP’s Maano bank account. Only once the produce is collected and the trader confirms its quality and quantity, the payment will be released to the farmer through mobile money. The best part is both sides benefit from Maano. Farmers receive more equitable prices enabling them to reinvest in their production. Buyers have an increased choice and access to larger volumes. Both save a lot of time and money for packaging, storage and transport.

“Maano Ambassadors” promote the app among members of their community . Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

Since April 2017, Maano is available on Google Play Store and has been promoted in print and radio. Fifty smallholder farmers from different communities have been trained as “Maano ambassadors” to promote the app among members of their communities, explain the features and coordinate advertisements and sales on the online market. During its first season, a reported 1,200 ‘follower farmers’ have successfully used the app: up to October, 148 metric tons of cowpeas, soya beans and other type of grains were sold through Maano — equivalent to five fully loaded trucks. Over 100 transactions have been made with a turnover of US$ 48,000. “We’re really happy with what has happened during this first year of piloting,” says Joyce. “Our most important assumptions have held true, namely that rural smallholder farmers who had never touched a smart phone before can learn how to use one to sell their communities’ produce with the right quantities and quality to attract new buyers,” he adds.

Congratulations! On 2 June 2017, the first transaction of 40 bags of cowpeas was managed through Maano. Photos: WFP/Photolibrary

Many farmers are happy with the result and their sales during the 2017 season. All ambassadors want to continue working with Maano. “I love this programme and I have become a good marketer for my people. I would love to continue serving them,” reports one of them. And the developers pursue ambitious plans. Next year, they want to at least double the number of farmers using the app and the amount they are trading, and launch small-scale pilots in two other countries. “This first year has shown us that our concept works and both farmers and traders want a product like Maano,” says Joyce. “Now we need to scale it up as efficiently and quickly as possible, while at the same time ensuring that it continues to benefit those furthest behind first: that’s the prerequisite for Maano to contribute to achieving Zero Hunger by 2030.”

Maano — the Virtual Farmers’ Market App has been developed and implemented with support of the WFP Innovation Accelerator and the Government of Germany. Find out more about innovation against hunger.

Many farmers expect increased sales through Maano next year. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

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