Esoko: Mobile e-marketing for Africa
In sixteen countries across Africa, including Nigeria, farmers are gradually overcoming the problem of information failure through a mobile platform called Esoko. In the past, they accepted whatever prices middlemen were willing to pay without any leads as to what the reigning prices were. Today, by simply sending a text message with the required key word, farmers can know how much the produce is going for in all the main markets.
It all started in 2005 when TradeNet started providing market data on agricultural marketing and trends to stakeholders within the Ugandan agricultural sector. By 2009, TradeNet had become Esoko (from the Swahili word for market – Soko) and had established itself across several countries in West Africa, including Nigeria, as an online marketplace for various agricultural resources. The Esoko team was able to put two and two together: if mobile penetration rates were around 60 percent in Africa and about 60 percent of Africans gain their means of livelihood through agriculture, then there is a great opportunity to exploit the potential of mobile services for agricultural stakeholders. As aptly noted by The Economist, “Africa’s enthusiasm for technology is boosting growth. It has more than 600m mobile-phone users – more than America or Europe. Since roads are generally dreadful, advances in communications, with mobile banking and telephonic agro-info, have been a huge boon. Around a tenth of Africa’s landmass is covered by mobile-internet services – a higher proportion than in India.”
The technology is simple. Imagine that we have a fish farmer or fisherman named Tamuno. Everyday, traders come to buy his fish to sell in the bigger markets in the Niger Delta. However, without information on how much fish is being sold for in these markets, he has no choice but to take the traders’ word for it. This could mean that Tamuno will sell his fish for N100 each to a trader who is actually going to sell it in the market for N350, making a 250 percent profit. This could go on for many years, leaving Tamuno, a hardworking farmer, with very little profits to improve his livelihood and expand his enterprise.
Upon acquiring Esoko service, Tamuno keys in the word “fish” and starts receiving text messages about the market prices of fish in different cities. He learns that the average selling price is N300 and not the N200 that the trader tried to convince him it was. Armed with this knowledge, he sticks to his guns in demanding N180 or N200 from the trader, thereby earning N80 or N100 extra per fish. What’s more, knowing now that Tilapia is being sold at a higher price than Knifefish, he can work harder to increase his stock of Tilapia and make even more money. With access to market trends, Tamuno may choose to sell his produce on a particular day in order to take advantage of favourable market factors.
All this is possible through the technology. For Esoko, something as simple as text messaging is a silver bullet. Through these texts, they are able to gather and share information about farming techniques, crop prices, stock levels, market trends, sales and employment opportunities, etc. Because of its customized and personalized nature, users are able to get information tailored to address their specific needs. This is not only useful for small farmers but for big businessmen. The knowledge of the value of this information to the latter has helped Esoko sustain itself as a for-profit enterprise, charging investors and stakeholders a fee while opening up information channels to them.
In agriculture, as in many other fields, information is power. With mobile phones and applications and large repositories of information on the internet, farming practices can be improved; markets can be discovered; business opportunities can be revealed; impending disasters can be averted; and food security can be improved. With information, yields and profits rise as the cost of inputs reduces. Information is the difference between poverty and financial buoyancy.