New ways to solve old problems

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Concern Worldwide is training farmers in Zambia to use conservation agriculture. To do this, we faced a familiar problem: how to deliver supplies to difficult-to-reach areas? Answer: by using mobile phones.

Training people in new farming techniques is a crucial part of our work in Zambia. This is because breaking poverty cycles is more important than putting meals on the table, even for poor families.

Our charity work

In 2001, we worked with 1,500 farmers. This will rise to 3,000 in 2012. These farmers live 800km from the capital, Lusaka, and live 90km from the nearest big town. To test the new farming technique, each farmer needs training and supplies. That means 35kg of seed and fertilizer so they can grow a trial crop of maize, cowpeas and groundnuts.

The old problems

The situation in Western Province in Zambia was causing us a headache. How do we get over 50 tonnes of supplies to a disparate population with very poor roads at the right time, in the right quantity for the right suppliers for the best price?

The solution

Road links may be bad, but mobile phone coverage is good, and most people will know where to get access to a phone even if they do not own one. So, we joined up with a local mobile phone company to come up with an innovative solution.

Using mobile phones

The idea is simple. We give each farmer a scratch card. They take the card to a seed trader. The trader checks the card details, sends a text message to a database, then receives payment in his account from Concern immediately. The farmer then takes the goods back to his farm.

A success

In practice, this idea was even more successful than we could have predicted. In the first week of operation, so many people accessed the scheme that the account ran out of money. The scratch cards were so easy to use that 50% of the people redeemed their vouchers in the first week.

Looking to the future

Next year, we have bigger plans for the scheme. Others such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme are also using it and hopefully a similar arrangement can be put in place for the governments’ distributions also.

Soon, I hope farmers in Zambia will be echoing that common western thought: “Just how did we manage before mobiles were invented?”