How to engage effectively
with smallholders (part 1)

James Alden

1 Feb 2022

6 min read

Table of contents

  • Understanding your users: put yourself in the farmer’s boots
  • Anecdote 1: What does this even mean?
Learn more about your farmers

Understanding your users: Put yourself in the farmer's boots.

“What is striking is that even people who are poor are just like the rest of us in almost every way. We have the same desires and weaknesses; the poor are no less rational than anyone else - quite the contrary. Precisely because they have so little, we often find them putting much more careful thought into their choices: They have to be sophisticated economists just to survive. Yet our lives are as different as liquor and liquorice. And this has a lot to do with aspects of our own lives that we take for granted and hardly think about.”

— Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, Poor Economics





This quote from Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s fantastic book Poor Economics sums up many of the issues that I will try to touch upon in this new blog series “How to engage effectively with smallholders”.

All too often I hear people discussing smallholder farmers as if they aren’t regular, run of the mill people. As if, by some weird coincidence, smallholder farmers aren’t rational actors like the rest of us. That they aren’t making decisions every day based on their very personal dreams or insecurities, with the intention of putting themselves or their families in a better position.

This mindset in turn creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where any solution that doesn’t work in the smallholder market is somehow the farmer’s fault: they aren’t willing to change, they aren’t educated enough, they are too remote etc etc. Not, which is more likely the case, that the solution didn’t actually address the true need of the farmer, or it was only one piece of a much larger problem, or it simply didn’t offer enough value to incentivise the farmer to change their behaviour.

In this blog I would like to touch upon one of the personal experiences that we had at Climate Edge that challenged this way of thinking. In future articles, I will draw upon additional anecdotes to take a deeper dive into the principles upon which we build our smallholder engagement platform from a more nuanced viewpoint of smallholder farmers as rational decision makers.

Anecdote 1: What does this even mean?

The principles of understanding your user through strategic research do not go out the window just because you are working with smallholder farmers. Conducting thorough research may be more difficult in this environment, but it doesn’t make it any less necessary. And my first anecdote taught us this lesson very quickly.

We had been in contact with the National Potato Council of Kenya (https://npck.org/), who have developed a very useful resource portal to support Kenyan potato farmers with various agronomic decisions. They told us that a big issue for potato production in Kenya is that the onset of the rainy season coincides with the potato harvest. The farmer’s goal is to wait as long as possible before harvesting their potatoes, this way they are able to maximise growth and therefore maximise their harvest and income. However, once the rains start, any tubers still left in the ground will begin to rot very quickly. Without access to localised weather forecasts, it is extremely difficult for farmers to plan their harvest schedule effectively, and they have to rely on experience and intuition to make the right call. Frequently farmers get caught out by early rains, leading to huge losses right at the end of the season with nothing they could have done about it.

Climate Edge has access to real-time weather forecasting data through our partnership with Weather Impact (https://www.weatherimpact.com/). Fantastic, we thought! This is an easy win. We had already tested SMS sequences that allowed farmers to subscribe to the weather forecast easily, so all we needed to do was provide the farmers access through the NPCK’s cooperative network. Then all farmers would be able to know when it would rain and plan their harvest accordingly. Win win.

We were so excited to be able to give such a powerful tool to the farmers that we started building the solution straight away. We had no doubt in our minds that it was the right tool for the job and that it would be perfect. And as we launched the service we made sure that we diligently gathered insights on uptake rates, churn and user satisfaction to make sure that the service was being as well received as we knew it would.

As you’ve probably guessed, the results were abysmal. Farmers simply weren’t using the service.

A tempting reaction to this failure is to complain that farmers are too stubborn to embrace innovation. The forecast is valuable - the farmers just don’t know it yet!

But then we took a step back and analysed what was going wrong, and it was obvious. In our haste to deliver a solution as quickly as possible, we had missed a vital step in the design process. Understanding the context of the user, and what it is that they are actually trying to do.

Our weather forecasts informed the farmer the likelihood of rain over the following 3 days, and how heavy the rainfall would be. You know, like a regular weather forecast:

  • Day 1: No chance of rain, dry.

  • Day 4: Low chance of rain, light.

  • Day 7: Medium chance of rain, light.

  • Day 10: Low chance of rain, moderate.

  • Day 13: Medium chance of rain, moderate.

  • Day 16: High chance of rain, heavy.

Harvesting your entire potato crop is not an easy task. You need to hire labour, and it takes a number of days of solid work to complete.

If you were in this farmer’s place, which day would you decide to commit to the harvest? When there is a low chance of light rainfall? When there is a medium chance of light rainfall? Or only once you receive the message that there is a high chance of heavy rainfall? If so, does that give you enough time to fully harvest the crop?

I would certainly be none the wiser.

We didn’t properly think about what decision the farmer was trying to make, and the context of why making that decision was difficult. Therefore, the solution we built completely missed the mark. All the farmer wants to know is when is the best time to harvest to maximise their yields whilst reducing their risk of loss. What we provided was information, but information is useless without context.

If we had considered the entire user journey from the beginning and brought those farmers into the design process, we would have saved a lot of time and money on our side, and we would have built a far more effective service for the farmers straight from the start.

My intention is for this anecdote to serve as an interesting (and hopefully enjoyable) perspective on a crucial lesson. Smallholder farmers are no different from you or I beyond the superficial fact that they are smallholder farmers. There is a reason that the most successful companies in the world are experts in user centered design, and invest heavily in understanding user behaviour.

If you want to succeed and create solutions that drive real change, then you have to be prepared to do the groundwork to understand what it is the farmer is trying to achieve, and the context from which they are trying to achieve it. Otherwise you might just end up telling a farmer that it may or may not rain, and they respond by deleting your number from their phone.