Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

Giving Voice, and Business Advice, to African Fish Farmers

August 30th, 2013

The ‘aha’ moment came during a simple phone call from Alloysius Attah’s aunt. If Ghanaian women like the cassava farmer who raised him were using basic mobile phones, Attah realized Farmerline could help them increase their yields and their incomes.

Since the spring, Attah and Farmerline have used simple voice messages — in Twi, Ga, Fanti, Nzema, Ewe and other languages — to deliver “best aquaculture management practices” infromation and answers questions for smallholder tilapia and catfish farmers in the the Ashanti and Brong Ahafo regions of Ghana.

No need for smartphones or downloaded apps or even SMS text messages — it turns out voice may be the killer mobile app for reaching millions of farmers in thousands of languages, many of whom can’t read.

“People like my aunt are feeding one-third of the world right now,” Attah said on a phone call from Accra before leaving for San Francisco to present Farmerline at SOCAP 13, the social capital markets conference Sept. 3-6. “We need to help them produce more food.”

Because Farmerline’s services raise incomes and deliver value, farmers have indicated a willingness to pay. So far, Farmerline has not charged, but the data and survey responses farmers have been happy to provides has proven a valuable tool for development agencies and NGOs seeking to measure their impact. Contracts with such agencies are Farmerline’s primary revenue source. Revenues also come from advertisements for agricultural products, particularly fertilizer, on Farmerline’s platform.

Farmerline is completing a six-month pilot, backed by the UK’s Indigo Trust,  that provided tilapia and catfish farmers tips on best management practices (don’t overfeed the fish!), record-keeping services, access to suppliers and pricing information from buyers. The early data suggests the farmers are producing heavier and higher-quality fish than previously, making their stock more attractive to commercial buyers.

Attah, 24 years old, is an almost perfect exemplar of the convergence of youth, technology and social innovation that is fueling the African renaissance. The youngest of three children, he was raised by his aunt after his parents separated when he was five years old. The only technology was a radio, which broadcast plenty of politics, but little agricultural advice for their small plot of cassavas. Ghana has an average of only one agricultural extension agent for every 2,000 farmers.

At university, Attah studied fisheries management, responding to the country’s push to increase production and reduce fish imports. Ghana’s fish market is indicative of a huge global opportunity for the growth of aquaculture. A US Department of Agriculture report in 2012 found that average fish production in Ghana of almost 300,000 metric tons has not grown since 2009, while the nation’s fish requirement is about 800,000 metric tons, meaning there’s ample demand that even imports can’t meet.

Even before he could graduate, Attah jumped at an opportunity for a three-week training in developing mobile applications provided by the World Wide Web Foundation. He teamed with Emmanuel Owusu Addai, a programmer who also wanted to help farmers. They interviewed fish farmers, who indicated willingness to pay for weekly advice on farm management and market access if it was effective. Reducing fish losses by even one kilogram of fish a month more than covers the farmers’ cost.

But SMS text applications, limited to 160 characters and primarily in English, weren’t appropriate. Customer research with about 300 fish farmers redirected their efforts.

The team recorded messages from extension agents in a range of local languages and developed a platform to deliver the messages. Farmerline’s toll-free service also allows farmers to browse through additional advice without having to be able to read. Similar voice-based surveys allow Farmerline to cost-effectively gather data.

Malcolm Beveridge, of WorldFish, part of the CGIAR research consortium, says “Farmerline is a pretty great idea, especially from an aquaculture perspective. Too few organizations are leveraging information technology to raise fish farmers’ productivity, he says. In addition to supporting farmers with technical advice, better information for farmers can lower transaction costs and increase their negotiating power in dealings with traders. “Of course, it all depends on the quality and timeliness of the information,” Beveridge

It is Attah’s job is to understand the needs of farmers for that high-utility information. His reports are detailed and insightful. In Kodie in Ghana’s Ashanti region, for example, farmer Mohammed Issah told Farmerline that he had thought frequent feeding meant faster growth. “When I started I was dumping the feed to my ponds,” he reported to Farmerline. After a training organized with USAID the emphasized reduced feed waste to cut costs and boost profitability, Issah said he realized he had “thrown all my money into the water in the form of feed.”

Osei Yaw Johnson, a farmer in Agona, said storage facilities are needed so fish can be kept for later sale or processing. Most fish farmers, he said, “cede to any price because they have no place of storage,” according to Attah’s report. “If they ‘prove stubborn,’ their last option would be to share their harvest with family members.”

Women are key to smallholder success. In conjunction with USAID’s Aquafish Innovation lab and several universities, Farmerline will reach out to 80 women, who play key roles co-managing fish farms with the husbands and also far outnumber men in fish processing and marketing. Farmerline will provide recording keeping, mobile-based communication and tools for impact assessment for the project.

The next challenge is to design information systems to improve market access and price visibility. In July, the Farmerline, team now made up of 8 members, kicked off a project, again with USAID, to help fish farmers get better prices for their tilapia and catfish by providing better access and market information.

“Right now we have field agents, listening to the farmers and also talking to big and small buyers about how they procure their fish… before we write a line of code,” Attah says. “For us to create biggest impact, we have to focus on the farmers.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an Impact IQ series on Oceans and Sustainable Fisheries,  in association with SOCAP 13, the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, Sept. 3-6.

Two Worlds and Times Convene for Sustainable Systemic Change

May 17th, 2013

This article is one in a series of guest contributions by Alloysius Attah, co-founder of Farmerline.


According to legend, the ancient Olympic Games were founded by Heracles, a son of Zeus (Greek god). The first Olympic Games for which were held in 776 BCE (though it is generally believed that the Games had been going on for many years already). The ancient Olympic Games grew and continued to be played every four years for nearly 1200 years. In 393 CE, the Roman emperor Theodosius I, abolished the Games because of their pagan influences.

Approximately 1500 years later, a young Frenchmen named Pierre de Coubertin began the revival of the Olympic Games. Coubertin’s attempt to get France interested in sports was not met with enthusiasm but he believed that, the experiment to revive the Olympics Games was worth it no matter the end results. He was willing to leave his blood and sweat on the field doing it. In 1890, he organized and founded a sports organization and in two years, Coubertin first pitched his idea to revive the Olympic Games. Though Coubertin was not the first to propose the revival of the Olympic Games, he was the most “unreasonable” and persistent of them of all. Two years later, he organized a meeting 79 delegates from nine countries to arouse their interest by speaking about the revival of the Olympics Games. The delegate voted unanimously for the Olympics Games and they decided to form the first the International Olympic Committee (IOC; Comité Internationale Olympique) in 1894.

Two years later, the first Olympic Games (Athletics, Cycling, Wrestling, Shooting, Tennis, Fencing, Swimming, Gymnastics and Weightlifting) was held in Athens. The evolution of the Olympic Movement during the 20th and 21st centuries has resulted in several changes to the Olympic Games. Some of these adjustments include the creation of the Winter Games for ice and winter sports, the Paralympic Games for athletes with a disability, and the Youth Olympic Games for teenage athletes. Now when we think of the Olympics, we think about the Gold Medals, Cal Lewis, and Usain Bolt record as the fastest man in the competition. In Ghana, we usually hope and pray that our athletes come home with just any medal to make us proud.

But what really define the Olympics for me are those inspirational moments that dramatize the power and resilience of the human spirit. Pierre de Coubertin persisted despite facing many hurdles; he succeeded in reviving the Olympics Games. That’s the true power of human spirit. He is national symbol of France and he reminds us of the capacity of the human race to overcome any obstacle.

Many scientist, environmentalist, social entrepreneurs and funders in time past have made tremendous strides in revitalizing our increasingly fatigued world. One person who deserves a gold medal is Myshkin Inqwale, inventor of ToucHB. ToucHB is a portable, mobile phone-sized device to diagnose and monitor anemia non-invasively i.e. without needles. The technology works on an optical principle and gives out results instantly. He succeeded in building it after 32 attempts.

Mohamed Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient also revolutionized the finance sector by starting microfinance for the poor. The microfinance industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry by extending financial services to the world’s poor because sufficient data was made available to investors to discover a way to understand risk and opportunity.

During a Facebook chat with Kevin Jones, convener of SOCAP, we discussed how we (social entrepreneurs and funders) can make a more conscious effort in incorporating the interest of the planet in our solutions. He shared with me the SOCAP 2013 conference track for ocean health and long term interest of attracting investment to bio-cultural resilience and the idea of building a bio-cultural resilience tool (oh yes, it was confusing at first).

The principles from the resilience shown in reviving the Olympic Games and the possibility of collecting and translating sufficient data to revolutionize the microfinance industry can be borrowed to preserve global oceans. Our quality of life today and the sustainability of our planet for the future depend on the ocean as our largest natural resource, as a habitat for countless species, and as a source of food and livelihoods.

To get entrepreneurs to understand the nature of the opportunity in revitalizing the oceans and to get impact investors to look at the ocean as a market opportunity, we need the bio-cultural resilience tool to collect and transmit data that can easily be consumed by various stakeholders. The bio-cultural resilience tool is the “International Olympic Committee” for the ocean and its “delegates” will be the socially and environmentally focused funders and entrepreneurs. It is a platform where both environmentally and socially focused funders are linked into a better and more complete deals than either could do on their own. This tool is a ‘Big Game’ with so many moving parts like lightweight messaging tool, due diligence tool and storytelling tool.

What this means is that Farmerline is willing to explore being the messaging backbone in the bio-cultural resilience tool. It’s an opportunity to enter new markets and also scale quickly. This experiment is worth undertaking because of the diversity and experience in the team behind it, a group of young Ghanaian technology entrepreneurs and a more experienced network of American Impact Investors. Happy Birthday to myself and Kevin Jones. Let’s see how the story unfolds…

About the Author

Alloysius Attah co-founded Farmerline, a mobile venture offering improved information access and communication pathways for smallholder farmers and agricultural stakeholders. He is passionate scaling technology to smallholder farmers across Africa. Alloysius brings to his peers, colleagues and community a sense of possibility and renewed enthusiasm. He is TEDxAccra speaker and an Echoing Green Fellowship 2013 semi-finalist. He studied Fisheries at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana and also has experience in using mobile and web technologies for development

E+Co Clean Energy Invest

December 10th, 2010

Clean Energy has the power to combat climate change and fuel progress worldwide. To support clean energy, E+Co invests in local energy businesses in Africa, Asia and Latin America. These businesses, in turn, light poor households, preserve natural resources and expand income. For 15 years their market driven approach has leveraged the immense power of local entrepreneurs to create a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous planet while generating financial returns. >>>Learn more about E+Co