How to engage effectively
with smallholders (part 2)

James Alden

1 Feb 2022

6 min read

Table of contents

  • Less is more
  • Anecdote 2: Why are you telling me this?
Learn more about your farmers

Less is more

“The notion that simplicity and clarity lead to good design.”

This, the second article in the series How to engage effectively with smallholders, will explore more closely what “effective engagement” really means. Again, I will draw upon personal experience to dive deeper into the specifics of how to create content that engages with smallholder farmers, rather than turning them away.

Generally speaking, organisations who want to engage with smallholders do so because they want that farmer to change their behaviour. This could be to encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable management practices, to buy their brand of seed or fertiliser, or to improve record keeping to increase supply chain transparency for example.

The aim of engaging with a farmer is not to give them something nice to read. Engagement is all about actions being taken.

Therefore, effective engagement does not mean that a farmer can now critique the merits and limitations of a 12-6-6 fertiliser mix versus a 10-10-10 mix ad infinitum, after receiving 26 SMS training messages. Effective engagement is when the farmer is able to apply the fertiliser correctly and achieve better results.

It is a constant surprise when we see the former approach being liberally applied. And it is no surprise at all when farmers tell us that they unsubscribed from these services as they found them a nuisance that didn’t help.

This article touches upon similar themes that were discussed in the first article published last week: take time to understand your users, and farmers are no different from you or I.

How many times have you subscribed to a company’s newsletter, only to unsubscribe a few weeks later because they have spammed you with useless, untailored content every day which fills your inbox and slowly leaves you hating the brand that you initially thought was interesting?

Probably too many to count if you’re anything like me.

Again, the same is true when considering smallholders. You might think that the farmers need to know and understand everything that is being delivered to them. But in reality, most farmers just want to know what they need to do, and when to do it. All that you are doing when you add in those additional informative messages is spamming the farmer, resulting in them not paying as close attention to what you actually want them to do.

Anecdote 2: Why are you telling me this?

I’ll try to illustrate this point by telling you about some of our earliest work when delivering services to farmers via SMS.

We had developed a system which allowed cooperatives to send messages directly to their member farmers in order to more effectively disseminate key information, such as negotiated crop prices, in real-time.

For a farmer to receive the service they needed to do two things:

  • Tell us which cooperative they belonged to, so that they only received messages that were relevant to them

  • Agree to our platforms terms of use, because we need to show that the farmer consented to the service

This was the first subscription sequence that we created to allow farmers to receive their cooperative’s broadcast service.

1.Farmer messages JOIN to our shortcode.

Welcome to the Climate Edge Platform. Responses are free of charge. Reply A to continue.

2. Farmer replies A

This service will allow you to receive updates directly from your cooperative, keeping you up to date. Reply A to continue.

3. Farmer replies A

Please complete 2 steps to sign-up and receive SMS updates from your cooperative. Reply A to continue.

4. Farmer replies A

Please reply A to accept our agreements (ce-app.info/privacy), B for more info. Climate Edge is not liable for content or usage. A. Accept B. Leave

5. Farmer replies A

Great. Finally, please reply with your Cooperative/Organisation code, for example COP, or Cooperative/Organisation name. If you don't have one, reply NO

6. Farmer replies with their cooperative code

Thank you! Registration is complete, you are ready to receive SMS from your cooperative. To learn more about data privacy reply PRIVACY or HELP for support

This sequence requires six messages from the farmer in order to join the service, when only two pieces of information from the farmer is actually required.

You can probably tell where this is going already. The sign up rates were terrible!

When we looked at the analytics reports we saw that this issue wasn’t that the farmers didn’t know about the service. Lots of farmers messaged JOIN to start the subscription process. What we saw was that farmers were giving up on the signup process.

When we looked at the trends, there wasn't a single message that farmers were getting caught at. It was simply that as the messages increased less and less farmers carried on. So we thought, why don’t we try just getting straight to the point. So came up with the following sequence:

1. Farmer messages JOIN to our shortcode

Hi! This is the Climate Edge platform. To join reply A to this message. (Terms of use: http://ce-app.info/terms) A: Accept - B:Leave

2. Farmer replies A

Great. Finally, please reply with your Cooperative/Organisation code, for example COP, or Cooperative/Organisation name. If you don't have one, reply NO

3. Farmer replies with their cooperative code

Thank you! Registration is complete, you are ready to receive SMS from your cooperative. To learn more about data privacy reply PRIVACY or HELP for support

Lo and behold, halving the number of messages that the farmers were required to reply to, and ensuring that each message had a clear and relevant purpose, drastically increased sign up rates to the service. We have since made sure to apply this concept when deploying any service to farmers. Always checking that each message has a necessary purpose.

The moral of the story is to respect a farmer’s time as much as you do your own. If the value of a service is that they can receive key information from their cooperative, then get them to that point as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

It is not always an easy thing to get right, but as long as you are actively considering the farmer’s time as a resource that needs to be conserved then you will be heading in the right direction.