A mobile phone revolution is redefining how small holder farmers buy and sell their produce, and shielding them from the unscrupulous middlemen who fix prices for their own benefit, with farmers recording tripling of yields by accessing market and comparing market prices on their own.
The mobile phones send market prices information from different markets allowing farmers to compare and target the ripe time to dispose their produce. This has also meant that farmers can time when the supply of certain commodities is scarce, and cash in on the scarcity to sell their produce earning a decent income.
This is a departure from the past where the farmers would flood the same produce, creating a glut with resultant poor prices. Paul Karui a maize and wheat farmer in Nakuru is one such farmer. This season, the farmer harvested 50 bags of maize and 10 bags of wheat from his five acres, which the crops share. Karui treated the produce and stored in his store on his farm about a month ago.
And as the maize sits in the store, Karui who has been a farmer for several years is scouting for better prices.The farmer, however, is not walking around markets to look for the best deal. He is doing all this on his mobile phone in the comfort of his farm. "I normally send a text message to a certain mobile phone number and it brings me maximum and minimum prices in this region,” said Karui.
The farmer is among hundred others in the region who have embraced technology to earn better prices from their produce that include rice, sorghum, wheat, maize and beans. "I check the prices every week to know whether they are going up or down or if they are stagnant. I checked two days ago and saw that a 90kg bag of maize was going for Sh1500. It has appreciated but this is too low, I cannot sell now."
To use the mobile phone software known as RATIN (Regional Agricultural Trade Intelligence Network), one composes a text message specifying his location and the crop he wants to know the price. "In my case I normally write 'Nakuru, Maize' and send the message to a number that I have saved in my mobile phone. It costs me Sh2, which is the normal price of an SMS," said Karui, who has been using the program for the past eight months.
Lydia Kipchirchir, another farmer who has been using the program, said it has eased the agony she used to go through looking for better prices. The time when she would rely on brokers to set the price is now long gone. "Now if a trader comes and tells me he will buy my maize at Sh1500 for instance, I will question him because I know the average market prices." Ratin, added Kipchirchir, helps farmers plan and not to be in any rush to sell their produce.
"Another good thing about it is that it does not only deliver prices on farmers' phones but it is easier to use. Any farmer can use it as long as they know the mobile phone number or how to write a text message."Davine Minayo, a market linkages officer with Eastern Africa Grain Council (EAGC), which is running the software, said they started it to cushion farmers from exploitation by middlemen.
"Many farmers used to sell their produce to middlemen at low prices because they had no way of knowing the average cost of maize, beans and wheat in the market. Ratin has given them this power."
The institution works with market information officers to collect the prices across the East Africa region. Minayo explained that they set the cost of the SMS at 0.01 dollars to make it affordable. "It is the reason we used the normal 10-digit mobile phone number instead of the four-digit, where a text-message is charged as high as Sh5. Farmers have no excuse of not selling their produce at better prices," she said.