How to engage effectively
with smallholders (part 3)

James Alden

1 Feb 2022

3 min read

Table of contents

  • Giving smallholders a voice
  • Measure your impact
Learn more about your farmers

Giving smallholders a voice

In my line of work I naturally speak to a lot of people who have tried to engage with smallholder farmers remotely. Engagement is essential for nearly all businesses due to the sheer number of farmers who require support and information. Applications range from cooperative staff who want to inform their members of upcoming events, NGOs who want to support farmers to uptake improved practices, or input companies who want to add value to their products.

However, these organisations reach out to me because they are struggling to succeed.

Farmers aren’t uptaking training as expected. Farmers aren’t responding to marketing campaigns. Farmers disregard their messages as spam.

The first place I start is to ask: “Have you spoken to the farmers?”

Most people have not.

This might seem really obvious, but the importance of establishing direct and bilateral communication with farmers is frequently overlooked in the smallholder sector. This leads to assumptions being made about challenges that smallholders face, and building solutions upon these assumptions. Not upon facts.

It is easy to deduce that the reason a farmer isn’t using the best agricultural practices is because they simply don’t know the steps required. And therefore the best solution is to send them a 10 step plan on how best to plant pumpkins and leave them to it. Or that farmers sell at farmgate because they don’t know what the cooperative price is, so what they need is to be sent the price on a daily basis.

But again, this doesn’t consider the human being, standing in their field, receiving those messages.

A farmer might start the 10 step pumpkin planting plan, but get stuck at step 5, because they don’t have access to the recommended inputs. Or they might be getting irritated by your daily messages and therefore block your number.

Is there any way that you can tell? Or do you just have a binary figure as to whether or not the farmer received the message?

If you don’t have a structured and reliable way of gathering these insights then you will always be left concluding that remote engagement simply isn’t effective. When actually what you must do is give farmers a voice. Creating feedback loops establish a means to continuously iterate on your design until it fits the farmer’s needs.

If your service is valuable for the farmer they will use it. If it isn’t, they won't. But this doesn’t happen overnight, it is a process of understanding your users.


Measure your impact

This is the key premise upon which we built the Climate Edge platform. We are not satisfied with just sending messages arbitrarily to farmers unless we know that they are effective, and that they add definable value to each farmer.

This isn’t easy, especially when working with smallholders. But there are a number of tools at our disposal that provide farmers this voice; allowing us to understand them better, and deliver value in a way that suits them. This ranges from low-touch methods that can be applied at scale, to high-touch methods that drill into the nuts and bolts. Put together, this information helps us paint as full a picture as possible of the human being, standing in their field, trying to take an action.

The first place to start is deploying rigorous and standardised metrics that allow us to benchmark different services at scale. Helping us quickly pick up whether there is a problem with the service that needs to be addressed. Simple metrics such as service uptake rate and churn are gathered for every single user on our platform, and therefore allow us to compare individual services against the average. Rates which vary too greatly from the average is a clear flag that something isn’t right, and that a deeper analysis is required.

Digging a little deeper, we strategically deploy surveys to a sample of users. These include NPS surveys, task completion surveys, and satisfaction scores. The results give us crucial additional indicators of how farmers are responding to the service.

Another weapon in our arsenal of farmer feedback mechanisms is our free text ASK feature. The ASK command on our SMS platform is universal and open to all users. This is extremely valuable in generating targeted user insights remotely, as it is often the first place farmers turn when they are struggling with a service, or don’t understand something. Of course there is some noise here, but this is worth it to provide the farmers with an outlet where they can receive support, and not get trapped within a service dead end. And often our ASK inbox is where some of our most valuable insights are generated that allow us to turn a mediocre service into a great service.

All of these digital indicators are then complemented with good old fashioned research. Speaking to farmers in the field, understanding their context, understanding their pressures, and what helps them make decisions. Of course this is hard work, but it is the best way of actually understanding the people who you want to engage with. It would of course be nice to speak to every farmer at length, but this isn’t feasible or necessary. This is why we adopt multiple methods at different scales. This approach allows us to apply resources effectively at scale without sacrificing the quality of insights that we are able to generate.

When you put all of these methods together, you begin to actually consider each farmer as a person, not just a nondescript ‘user’. And if you can’t put yourself in the person’s shoes, and give each person a voice, your messages are destined to fall short.