Need an Extension Agent? Dial 1-800-Agr-Help (Maybe)

In 2004, the residents of Zozo Tombo Harouna in rural Niger didn’t have much by way of infrastructure. There were no paved roads, landlines were non-existent, and the nearest bank (or cooperative) was an hour away by car or truck. The nearest weekly market, the lifeline for inputs and outputs, was a two-hour walk.

What a difference a decade makes.  In 2008, a mobile phone tower was built near the village. By 2009, 30 percent of households owned a mobile phone, with one phone per household; by 2013, 75 percent of households had a mobile phone, with an average of two phones per household.  With households dependent upon rainfed agriculture, livestock and seasonal migration, per capita incomes average less than $1.25 per day, with strong intra- and inter-annual variations.

Yet what we have observed in Zozo Tombo Harouna since 2008 is not uncommon: It has been repeated across Niger, West Africa, and the rest of the continent. So why would the mobile phone be so useful? The “short” answer is that it allows people to keep in touch with friends and family members, more efficiently, and at a lower cost.  Communication with social networks is critical because they can provide informal insurance in the face of shocks. Talking with friends and family members when and where you need them can play an important social – and economic – role.

Beyond those social communications, mobiles certainly have the potential to affect rural Nigeriens. By reducing communication costs, mobile phones could increase farmers’ access to private and public information – on prices, inputs and risks. They also may allow farmers to better coordinate with sellers and buyers, making it easier to manage their supply chains. And the advent of mobile money should, in theory, make it easier for farmers to pay those buyers (or sellers), receive insurance payouts or put money aside for agricultural (or other) investments.

The excitement over the potential of mobile phones has led to the proliferation of mobile phone and agriculture projects, from market information systems to agricultural extension and insurance payouts, with decidedly mixed evidence. Beyond some of the early work on the impact of mobile phone coverage on agricultural price dispersion in India and Niger, recent interventions have covered a range of topics: from SMS-based information on prices and weather in India to voice-based agricultural extension (again in India) to SMS reminders on agricultural techniques (in Kenya) to providing feedback on agricultural extension services in Rwanda.

The results of this research are inconclusive.  In general, farmers seem to appreciate the access to information (as evidence by early adoption and usage of some of these services) but may not be willing to pay full market price for it (as evidence by drop-out rates over time, potentially due to information-sharing among farmers). And while that information may improve farmers’ knowledge, it doesn’t always lead to changes in behavior (ie, input usage, crop choice), yields or profits. When it does, it seems to be useful for a specific crop for which that information is time-sensitive and perhaps easier to communicate via mobile.

There are three big lessons:

  • Mobiles phones aren’t a silver bullet – for development in general or in agriculture in particular. As a communication and transfer device, they are particularly useful for improving access to information and/or reducing transaction costs. But if other market failures are constraining small farmers, mobile phones (alone) won’t necessarily lead to better outcomes.
  • Even if information is the problem, the quality of that information matters. In other words, can the information be conveyed via voice or 140 characters? Can it reach farmers in time? And is it useful?
  • New isn’t always better. Even if the mobile-based approach does improve farmers’ lives and livelihoods, policymakers and the public sector should maintain a healthy skepticism. While there are some positive results associate with mobile ag extension programs, it’s unclear if they are more effective that traditional agricultural extension programs. In order to decide whether to scale up these services, researchers must compare the agricultural extension programs with the new mobile initiatives, to determine if they are complements or substitutes, and which one is more cost-effective.