Phones and Goats

Photo: NP India burning 43. Neil Palmer (CIAT). Rice farmer, SE Punjab, India.

Using Mobile Phone Technology to Help Goat Farmers

I work with goats. Rather, my organization – The Goat Trust – helps goat (and poultry) farmers become better rearers of their livestock. As many people rely on their livestock as sources of income and nutrition, the healthier and more productive their livestock are, the healthier and wealthier people become. It’s often quipped that the goats are the “poor person’s cow” – owning larger livestock like cows or buffaloes is cost-prohibitive for poorer farmers. Moreover, women are more likely than men to rear goats. As such, our work aims to fight poverty, empower women, and better health. To achieve these goals we have a host of interventions and programs, ranging from training rural women to become livestock nurses to researching if eating certain tree leaves increases a goat’s milk yield.

Currently, I’ve been tasked with strengthening and expanding The Goat’s Trust digital initiatives, namely our digital livestock marketplace and to begin using mobile phones to help goat farmers. To accomplish the latter, we are exploring sharing our knowledge, training, and best practices through texts, pre-recorded calls, mobile apps, and call centers. Sharing information these ways would be examples of Agricultural Value Added Services (Agri VAS).

As a courtesy to those who want (or feel socially obliged) to read my blog posts, let me explain what Agri VAS are, how they work, and why we’re bothering with them at all. It might help y’all make sense of my future posts. More importantly though, few people need reminding that technology can be an incredibly powerful tool in development. My hope is that my blog serves as a useful introduction to one innovative way people are bettering our world.

Agricultural Value Added Services (Agri VAS)

Note: Most (but not all) of the information and images from this section come from the extraordinarily helpful Agricultural Value Added Services (Agri VAS) Toolkit 2.0prepared in 2016 by the incredible GSMA Mobile for Development Team. Their Toolkit was incredibly informative and 100 pages long, so I originally prepared the information in this section as a summary for my co-workers. The following section has been edited for a broader online audience. Unless otherwise noted, the page citations refer to the toolkit.

Basic ideas and terms

Agricultural Value Added Services (Agri VAS) – mostly information delivered through mobile phones to farmers about agriculture. Agri VAS can be texts, call centers, apps, or voice recordings. There are many types of Value Added Services (VAS) – for example, Agri VAS are services about agriculture, and Health VAS would be services for health. Agri VAS programs are typically a form of Agricultural Extension Services. 

Agricultural Extension Services – efforts and programs to share the best agricultural practices with the larger population. Researchers have explained,

For decades, the Government of India, like most governments in the developing world, has operated a system of agricultural extension, intended to spread information on new agricultural practices and technologies, through a large work force of public extension agents.  however, evidence of the efficacy of these extension services is quite limited. In India, dispersed rural populations, monitoring difficulties and a lack of accountability hamper the efficacy of traditional extension systems: fewer than 6% of the agricultural population reports having received information from these services. (Cole & Fernando 2016, p 1, emphasis mine)

Another scholar notes that Agri VAS programs can be conceptualized as the newest form of agricultural extension services using ICT, “The application of ICT in agriculture is not a new concept. Studies have shown that most farmers had access to a variety traditional information sources (TV, radio, newspapers, other farmers, government agricultural extension services, traders, input dealers, seed companies and relatives), which they regularly access for agricultural information (NSSO, 2005; MITTAL et al., 2010; SARAVANA, 2011). These traditional ICT’s have been an important tool since past several decades to disseminate scientific and technical agricultural knowledge to farmers and also leading to improved adoption of technologies. They played an important role during the green revolution in 1970’s
and 1980’s (SULAIMAN et al., 2011).” (Mittal & Mehar 2012, p 230)

According to the World Bank, there are more than 1 million agricultural extension workers in developing countries, and public agencies have spent over $10 billion dollars on public extension programs in the past five decades (Feder, 2005). The traditional extension model, “Training and Visit” extension, has been promoted by the World Bank throughout the developing world and is generally characterized by government-employed extension agents visiting farmers individually or in groups to demonstrate agricultural best practices (Anderson and Birner, 2007). Like many developing countries, India has a system of local agricultural research universities and district level extension centers, producing a wealth of specific knowledge. In 2010, the Government of India spent $300 million on agricultural research, and a further $60 million on public extension programs (RBI, 2010). Yet, traditional extension faces several important challenges that limit its efficacy[…]  Overcoming these “informational inefficiencies” may therefore dramatically improve agricultural productivity and farmer welfare. The emergence of mobile phone networks and the rapid growth of mobile phone ownership across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa has opened up the possibility of using a completely different model in delivering agricultural extension services. (Cole & Fernando 2016, pp 4-5)

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) – MNOs are the network providers. They include Telenor, Airtel, or Vodafone, in India, or AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon in America.

Push and Pull services – Push and pull services are ways of describing the Agri VAS.  A push service is a service pushed onto the consumer where the consumer does not interact with the service beyond reading or listening to the information. The consumer does not specifically ask for information pushed onto them. Examples include SMS text messages being sent daily to 5,00,000 farmers giving them weather updates automatically.

Pull services are where an individual consumer requests, asks for, or pulls information. It is more interactive, and the consumer must request for the information specifically to get it. An example would be calling into a call center or texting a code to ask for information on a specific subject. Pull services can still be pre-recorded or handled through MIS software or involve a live human being.

Content Provider – the people or organization creating the actual content for the messages. They’re the experts on agriculture. If SMS messages are being sent out, they write texts. If a call center is involved, they provide the staff for the call center.

How does this process work?

In general, Agri VAS programs are partnerships between the MNOs (like Vodafone) and Content Providers. So the content provider is normally an expert on agriculture or health, and the MNO works with them to share the content created with consumers who sign up for the Agri VAS program.

Consumers (in this case, farmers and livestock rearers) learn about the Agri VAS somehow and sign up for the service by texting a simple code (like “enroll”) to a number. After that, the MNO will deliver content (SMS or calls) to the farmer with relevant information.

Content can include:

  • Weather updates
  • Reminders to plant crops or vaccinate livestock at certain times of the year
  • Market information (normally a pull service) where farmers can text the name of a crop they want to sell and the service will reply with the price of that crop at several different markets nearby
  • Call centers for farmers to call when they have specific questions

That’s a lot of information so far, so let’s take a break.

Also, as a thank you for reading, please find below a video of some newborn kids at The Goat Trust (TGT) farm – which shares a campus with our office. While our address is still within Lucknow proper, our office is located about 8 km north of anything that one would consider the city. Seperating us from the city is 6 km of protected forest, creating a rural enviornment one would never guess is within the municipal boundraries of a city with more people than Chicago.

Our office lies adjacent to the small village Rasulpur Sadat, and fields surround our other sides. TGT’s office being in the communities we serve is indicative of its larger approach (theoretical directions from the city to our office would literally include ‘turn left when you reach the house with the three goats on the porch’). Goats are the poor’s livestock because few other animals are as accessible to so many people. Similarly, our campus is accesible to the community we serve. Farmers regularly bring their sick goats to our campus for veterinary treatment.

Moreover, not only do our doctors lead trainings in goat artificial insemination, they collect the semen for later insemination themselves – a fact I learned on my very first day when I was asked to photograph one semen collection and the subsequent two artificial inseminations. Long is the list of various goat operations I have stumbled upon on my way to our lunch hall – just as it should be. Many NGOs suffer from being geographically, ideologically, or culturally divorced from the communities they serve. That livestock significantly outnumber humans in our campus speaks volumes to the close marriage between TGT and our community.

Now, back to Agricultural Value Added Services!

Why MNOs offer Agri Vas:

Agri VAS services are profitable. Many Agri VAS services charge money from the consumers for the program. Sometimes NGOs or the government will pay the MNOs to offer these services, and other times the MNOs view Agri VAS as a form of marketing – a farmer will be more loyal to Vodafone if Vodafone is offering a free Agri VAS program. Also, GSMA estimates annual direct revenues from Agri VAS across developing world will grow from 200 million USD in 2014 to 500 million USD in 2020.

Examples of the direct revenue model from the toolkit (p 17):

“In India, IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited (IKSL) sells the Airtel Green SIM, which provides access to core network services, as well as voice and text-based content at special rates for farmers. The service generates direct revenue through the sale of SIM cards and airtime recharges. It was launched in 2007 and broke even in 2011.

Behtar Zindagi in India (recently merged with mKisan) offers advice and information on crop agronomy, animal health, weather forecasts and market prices for major crops to farmers in India. This is done through SMS (push) and IVR and helplines (pull) for a subscription package of INR 1 (US$ 0.02) per day, purchased in packs of 10, 20, or 30 days.”

However, the report states, “for mobile operators, indirect benefits have been the main business driver in Agri VAS projects in most cases” (p 17). For example (p 18):

Since it launched its Green SIM service, in partnership with the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO), Bharti Airtel India has recorded an increase in rural market share—5% of all the mobile operator’s rural acquisitions came through IKSL in 2014—and customer loyalty, with 60% of customers using their Green SIMs for longer than 12 months.

(p. 16)

What kinds of VAS are offered:

On page 30 of the report, there is a chart detailing the different types or ‘channels’ of VAS delivery. They sort them from the cheapest and least complex (SMS texts) to the most complex and expensive (‘rich content’ – which is apps for smartphone). This spectrum also goes from the least helpful (texts) to the most helpful (apps and call centers). So it is important to find the right balance.

  • SMS – Basic texts
  • USSD – (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data). Not a widely used service, but very basic service that does not require an internet connection or a smart phone. It is the cheapest pull The photo to the right is an example of USSD from mKisan’s website ( Unstructured Supplementary Services Data (USSD) Applications,accessed 12 Nov 2017).
  • OBD – Outbound Dialing, pre-recorded phone calls sent to large numbers of people.
  • IVR – Interactive Voice Response: Farmers call a number and are told, “press one if you have questions about goat sickness, press two if you have a question about goat feed, etc.”. After the farmer presses ‘1’, they are then told, “press one if your goat has parasites, press two if it was injured by a car”. When the farmers presses ‘2’, a pre-recorded message is played giving advice about how to take care of an injured goat. All content is pre-recorded but still interactive.
  • Helpline – call center.
  • Rich media – Apps for smartphones.

Some VAS providers will charge for certain types of content but not others. Also, in some programs, the first 5 SMS messages are free for month, but additional updates and services cost money. For example (p 34):

So What? 

Do Agri VAS programs have an actual impact? Do they make a difference? 

While a meta-analysis is far beyond the scope of this (already very long) blog post and better suited for future blog posts, randomized control trials suggest that agricultural value added services can significantly increase agricultural yield (Cole & Fernando 2016) and knowledge (Van Campenhout, Bjorn, et al. 2016) by sharing best agricultural practices; however, research has also shown they are less effective in maximizing farmers’ profits by sharing the prices of their produce in different markets (Fafchamps & Minten 2012).
In short, they do help. They can provide information cheaply and widely to millions of farmers. Academic, industry, and government studies have all found that there is a real ‘knowledge gap’ – that farmers often don’t know the best ways to farm. Agri VAS programs have and can help.

Raised in Arkansas, Michael attended college in Washington, D.C., at American University. Fascinated by the intersection of religion and politics, he studied International Relations, minored in Religion and Arabic, and concentrated in the Middle East and South Asia. Michael studied Arabic in Jordan and later tried to study in Varanasi, India, but was unfortunately unable to travel. Michael is expectedly excited to finally go to India through the AIF Clinton Fellowship after years of waiting. The year following his graduation, Michael worked an odd sequence of positions as an intern at a think tank on the Middle East, as a Segway tour guide, and then as an assistant at a lobbying firm. This past year, he served through AmeriCorps VISTA in Camden, New Jersey, where he did monitoring and evaluation for a homicide prevention initiative. Hoping to assist poverty alleviation and conflict resolution programs across South Asia and the Middle East throughout his career, he's excited to expand his evaluation knowledge through the Goat Trust's microfinance programs as an AIF Clinton Fellow.

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