How Digital Innovation is Unlocking Markets for Horticulture Farmers in Malawi

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Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third (1.3 billion tons) of food worth over $1 trillion is lost or wasted annually across the globe, and the highest losses are in the category of perishable products such as horticulture produce, which are offered fresh in the markets. A staggering 37% of this wastage is in Sub-Saharan Africa. This wastage not only deprives farmers of their deserved economic returns but also squanders precious resources such as water, seeds, fertilizers, energy, and land, and leads to increased carbon emissions. In addition to pest attacks and other factors, food loss and waste is caused by fluctuations in market demand and supply or, generally, market inefficiencies culminating from blind markets and information frictions.

In Malawi, the Feed the Future-funded Advancing Local Leadership, Innovation and Networks (ALL-IN) initiative is turning the tide by enabling market access for horticulture farmers. Implemented by the International Centre for Evaluation and Development (ICED) and Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience Lab (MRR Innovation Lab), the ALL-IN initiative is supporting a study which is testing digital innovations to improve market access for horticultural produce. Led by researchers from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUNAR), ALL-IN is piloting a mobile-phone-supported intervention to alleviate these information frictions: a trading app that is usable on simple feature phones. In the app, farmers with produce to sell can advertise by sending a series of simple text messages to potential clients. Similarly, vendors can advertise their demand. The platform also provides agricultural extension services to farmers remotely.

“These innovations could resolve key barriers restraining small-scale horticultural producers, particularly women, from accessing markets and sustaining resilient livelihoods,” says Dr. Robertson Khataza, the project’s Principal Investigator at LUNAR.

Recent findings from the study revealed that farmers are excited about digital extension and marketing services, and that farmers prefer to receive texts or videos containing advisory information via their mobile phones. In addition, farmers are willing to pay about $4 per month for improved service delivery. Over 80% of the farmers interviewed responded in the affirmative that they were definitely sure to pay the stated offers. The findings highlight an important paradigm shift where agricultural advisory services can be deployed through mobile-phone-based channels (text, voice, or video) to complement human extension agents. Currently, the number of farmers being served by one extension worker in Malawi is too high for effective service delivery: one extension worker serves between to 2,000–3,000 farmers within a radius of 30-50 kilometers and in areas where the terrain is also difficult to navigate using a bicycle.

“Evidence generated from this project will go a long way in informing policy-based interventions to remove barriers to market access, reduce food loss, and empower smallholder farmers in Malawi and across Africa,” says ICED President and CEO, Dr. David Ameyaw.

These paired ICT interventions are demonstrating the potential to provide wide benefits across local horticulture markets in Malawi. For farmers, they could reduce transaction costs and facilitate sales, increasing profits and reducing spoilage. For vendors, these interventions could increase access to high-quality produce while improving inventory management, both of which can increase sales and profits.

ALL-IN is a development research initiative that funds various research projects across six African countries (Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria). ALL-IN is implemented by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk & Resilience in collaboration with the International Centre for Evaluation and Development (ICED).