AGRIC-INFO SPECIAL - HELPING PRODUCERS MAKE MONEY FROM DIGITAL INFORMATION

Top Story

Bananas can be bought for 200 Ugandan shillings a bunch on the roadside near to where they’re grown. The same bunch costs UGS6-7,000 in the capital Kampala and UGS 10,000 at times of high demand like Christmas. This price disparity has attracted a whole range of technology-based information providers who are attempting to redress the price and negotiating balance of power in favour of the producer.

What follows is a briefing on how these providers are coming up with ICT information solutions to address this issue. It is based on attending a conference held by the Dutch NGO IICD for its projects in November last year. In order that you can hear the participant’s views as clearly as possible, this briefing is provided on an "off-the-record" basis: views or quotes are not attributed.

There are three additional reports in this special issue: Daniel Annerose gives an update on progress from Manobi; Titus Gitau of Africalion.com describes its online coffee auctions; and Stephane Bayalza of FIAB in Burkina Faso outlines its plans to create an information system for its members.

CHANGING THE BALANCE OF POWER IN THE VALUE CHAIN

The value-chain describes how a basic item like a bunch of bananas starts at one price and ends at another much higher price. At a domestic level, it might involve a producer, a lorry driver with room on a return load, a wholesaler and a market stall owner. At an international level, it can involve a producers, an exporter, an importer/wholesaler, a local cash-and-carry and a retailer. Each person in the chain needs to be paid for what they do in getting the crop from one place to another and/or from state (unprepared) to another (pre-prepared).

The argument of those offering agricultural information and transaction-based sites is two-fold. Information is power and if the producer knows the retail or market price, he or she will will have power in the negotiation. The apocryphal anecdote that everyone in this area repeats at one point or another is the case of the Bangladeshi farmer who used a phone to discover market prices and was so shocked by the disparity with what he was selling for that he banded together with other farmers to form a transport co-op to take their goods directly to market, cutting out the "middleman". It is worth noting that no-one can ever tell you where these farmers are and that the crop in question varies in the telling from one person to another.

The second argument is related to the first and applies particularly at an international level. Web-based technology offers producers the opportunity to go direct to buyers in the developed world and it is argued reduce the number of people in the value-chain and thus retain more of the value for themselves. Increasingly high value "boutique" products (for example, special coffees) are finding niche markets. Each of these two arguments rests on the notion that digital technology can produce efficiency savings in the value chain.

In each case it is always the "middleman" who is the villain of the piece. He or she buys low from the producer and sells high to the retailer. But before condemning the "middleman" it is worth unpacking the expertise that they have. They know where to buy crops and the likely price and quality of them. They know where to find trucks for transport and at what price. They often take financial risks on crops that will not keep longer than a few days. They may well lose as well as win on some transactions but know how to come out ahead over a range of transactions. They know where to sell goods and the prices different outlets are likely to pay. The buyers will trust the "middleman" to offer them some relationship between price and quality.

All of which is not necessarily in their defence but it does illustrate that they they do a whole lot more than nothing much: each of the layers of expertise described above has its value. It is easy to see that providing price information may help change the "terms of trade" but may not fundamentally affect them. There may be simply too many other things going on in the value chain and these also need to be looked at.

For example, a South African supermarket chain sources all its tomatoes in South Africa rather than locally. Why? Probably for two reasons. Its aggregate buying power across the chain enables it to get the lowest possible price. But it can also impose a high quality threshold that ensures it gets only the best tomatoes. Buyers often want to deal with a single seller rather than running hundreds of smaller transactions.

It’s an old Hollywood saying that ‘there only really five stories’ in films. So it is with agric-info and transaction sites. There are the price-based information services that are sometimes supplemented with information from potential buyers. These give farm-gate prices and market prices as a a way of offering leverage to producers. Often those involved in producing this kind of information find themselves getting involved in playing a broking role. They begin to get to know enough to broker introductions between buyers and sellers and charge a small commission. In effect they begin to play the part of the "good guy middleman". Finally there are the transaction-based sites. These offer the producers the chance to sell direct to buyers. The online coffee auctions described below and Jamaica’s JAMPRO export promotion site are or will offer this kind of service.

Several of the price information services have come out of either Government-run agricultural extension services, Ministries of Agriculture or producers’ associations. Not surprisingly they focus on helping producers in ways that go wider than price. They often offer information on: what crops are in demand, production levels, fertiliser prices and international regulations on quality, packing and what constitutes "organic". For example one of the projects at the conference was a Government ministry looking to encourage farmers to grow non-traditional export crops like green beans and chillies.

The different origins of these types of price services tend to shape how they develop. If it is a government-based service, the underlying model is one of the state helping improve planning: the information is there to enable farmers to grow the right crops in the best way. Because in the past it was based on phone and typewriter, understandably its ability to produce timely information has (until relatively recently) been somewhat limited. At least two of the participants started price services from the position of being private sector publishers. They could see how information had value and in both instances found themselves broking consequent sales as a natural entrepreneurial extension of the first service. Others were NGOs who saw it as their role to help defend the livelihoods of peasant producers in the increasingly choppy waters of global agricultural markets. All illustrate different objectives whilst addressing the same fundamental problem.

The government-based organisations often found it hard to convince their superiors of the value of a new service of this kind that might cost more to run and might not produce immediate benefits:"My boss doesn’t understand computers and can’t see why we should be doing this." Government (especially in Africa) tends to be risk-averse and does not invest in new services easily. There are too many competing demands. The private sector entrepreneurs were quick to spot opportunities and move on them but were often not trusted by government. The NGOs were able to innovate quickly but lacked a basic understanding of running a business that might enable them to put their services on a more sustainable footing.

Differences of organisational culture often led to confusions between whether the service was simply information-based or it was a more sharp-end transaction-based service. But wherever the services originate, they all need government to facilitate improvements in infrastructure, quality setting measures and information generation. In some instances, government has the means to collect information but may not have the ability to create value from it. As the Tanzanian private sector provider put it:"We need to have a policy intervention on measurements. There are no common measures. We would like to work with Government on these sort of things."

So why doesn’t government sell the information to others who can create businesses from it? A near parallel is the way the Ordnance Survey in the UK sells mapping data to companies who use it to create pay-for information services. (However there is currently a huge argument as Ordnance Survey has announced its intention to go into these business areas itself).

Whatever the service, the technological means of delivery matter more than in developed countries. The most widely distributed means of delivery in Africa is the mobile phone and using SMS text messaging would seem to be a natural way of offering these services. The article below describes a service in Senegal, Manobi. SMS text messaging has obvious limitations for more complex information other than a price "feed". Manobi (see below) has devised a platform that brings the mobile and internet together.

Other approaches have been to try and extend rural connectivity, offering the telecentres and cybercafes where producers can either go to use a computer or simply see posted information on paper. One West African service will rely on using telecentres that form a part of the framework of local government. Progress on extending connectivity to rural towns has been slow in Tanzania and Zambia and without this first set of connections in place, the roll-out to even more isolated places will not take place; an issue we will return to in a later issue.

PDAs were much discussed but are not yet as widely distributed as mobiles amongst African agricultural producers. However, their value as a means of information gathering should not be underestimated. Web-based transaction sites like the online coffee auctions described below offer another platform that might work with higher value transactions.

The long-term dream of developed world e-business specialists is to create seamless transactions in the value-chain. Gartner’s four-step model describes businesses going from presence (having an non-interactive web site) to prospecting (carrying out business through your web site) to business integration (B2B transactions) to the highest state of nirvana, business transformation.

Significant obstacles stand in the way of following this path in Africa. There is not yet the trust or infrastructure to make electronic transactions an everyday feature of business life. But as the tourism industry in South Africa shows, the possibilities are not as far off as is often argued. However seamless information gathering amongst a relatively small network of people is less likely to be a substantial challenge if approached with determination.

Although technology offers obstacles, it is not the only thing standing in the way of developing effective agric-info and transaction services. Many projects were wrestling with more fundamental problems: how frequent did the service need to be? How swiftly was the information needed? How was the information to be gathered at the frequency required? How would you describe the quality of produce to potential buyers in the absence of agreed quality standards? Who were the customers? Who would pay for the service?

The Government agencies collecting information often did so on a frequency cycle that was probably too slow to affect producer decisions: monthly as against weekly. There are problems of sampling sizes. For example, one country has 200,000 farmers. In order to get a representative sample, it would be necessary to be polling several thousand a week to get any meaningful information on a given crop. If you work out how many farms an agricultural information officer (or indeed any other information gatherer) can visit in a week, you can begin to see the scale of the task. Only information gathered by phone (or in the longer term computer or PDA) will ultimately make sense. Likewise, in a country like say Tanzania, how many markets would you need to be sampling to say anything meaningful about retail prices?

The scale and logistics of information gathering are thus often harder than they might appear. With some exceptions, most of the projects at the conference were running the equivalent of small-scale pilots: operating in one district or centre. The Tanzanian provider estimated that it would take 18-20 centres to provide a full service.

The next stage is to create a "critical mass" of information so that the services become indispensable. Each operates at a country level and in order to get this "critical mass" for export crops, there will need to be some way offering an aggregated service that offers prices from different parts of Africa and from across the world. FIAB, a trade association in Burkina Faso (see below) was the only organisation to realise the importance of transport prices to the final price achieved.

Most of the participants at the conference had not yet reached the point of addressing how their services might be sustainable in the long-term. Often they felt that since those who needed the information were often not well-off it did not make sense to be charging them for it. There was not always a clear sense of income against cost. However all were painfully aware that if the services are to survive they have to find an answer to the question: who will pay for it?

The biggest difficulty for most will be making the transition from being free to needing to charge somebody for it to be sustainable in the long-term. The donor, in this instance IICD, can "seed" developments but cannot be the long-term funder. One way of looking at it would be to think about customers at different value levels. The producers must surely be able to pay at least something if the information has the value its proponents argue. Therefore these represent numerous low value customers. It would also be possible to charge the equivalent of subscriptions to the services with higher subscription levels for larger farmers and major agri-producers. The much abused "middlemen" would also be likely mid-value subscribers. Finally governments and donors ("donor farming" as one person described it) provide a small number of high-value customers.

It might not be possible to cover the entire costs of the service but it would be possible to look at a percentage cost recovery model. If the service was well used it might make back more than half its costs and look to government to fund the rest. It may be that Government does not attempt to run the service directly itself but sells the information to others to create new businesses that have the expertise to make money from it. For example, one of the Government participant’s organisations had a variety of key pieces of information: the mobile numbers of a considerable number of farmers, farm price information and the names and phone numbers of buyers. It could sell this information to a company that could produce a value-added service that it could sell to a mobile company or share revenues with the mobile phone company based on use of the service.

Price or cost information becomes valuable where the crops produced are high-value and there are big price swings. It is perhaps in areas of agriculture that fit this more demanding criteria where commercial returns will be made. Any company or organisation that can collect and process information has the basis of some considerable expertise. As we outlined in a previous issue (issue 134:Competing in world ICT markets - Africa needs to raise its game), these are the skills that will enable organisations to win developed world, value-added information service outsourcing contracts.

MANOBI TEAMS UP WITH SONATEL TO PROVIDE AGRIC-INFO ON MOBILES

Manobi-France, an Internet and mobile service virtual operator and SONATEL, a subsidiary of France Télécom, have announced the creation of Manobi-Senegal, a joint venture that will enable them to produce and provide data services on mobile telephony to the rural sector and agribusiness professionals. Manobi- France holds 66 % of the subsidiary and SONATEL the remaining 34 %.

The creation of Manobi-Senegal is an important landmark in the partnership between the two companies which for a whole year, have been successfully testing the multimedia devices developed and implemented by Manobi-Franceon the SONATEL Internet and mobile network before validating them with their customers.

ManobI-France has developed a bi-polar device integrating the following:

- The Multi-Channel Service Platform (MCP), which is a unique multi-modal technological platform that adds multi-channels data functionnalities in the network of the mobile operators with no necessary major changes in their structure. Fully developed in Open Source, it ensures an immediate and full convergence between Mobile and Internet at the market cheapest price. - MyVo, a strong value added e-business application line for the professionals of agriculture and fishing sectors (producers, fishermen, fishmongers, industrialists, exporters, importers. ). From any mobile or wired terminal, the user can in any circumstance, securely access his individual virtual office to obtain the following services: (i) information on the market and on their products, (ii) communication (e-mails, news, ), (iii) sales (market places), (iv) supply (product price-lists, online purchases,) and (v) professional assistance (follow up on crops, ).

The solution proposed by Manobi-Senegal is destined for the rural market traders who are not generally found in the group of customers of the mobile telephone operators in the developing countries. They are thus offered intelligent data services that complete the classic voice offer. This market has important potential for the mobile telephony sector.

Manobi-France has designed a balanced technological solution with a full range of services that enables it to devote more energies to the development of new uses suited to the local needs. Millions of producers can in this way, from a mobile or wired terminal adapted to their economic level of the moment, reach the center of their business or market from their farms. The multi-mode and multi-channel peculiarities of our platform permit to offer to the other actors of the sectors, like the industrials and the suppliers, services that increase their interactions with the producers who are often located far from the market places. Our sound solutions enable us to efficiently tackle the complexity of these sectors of activity by simplifying the exchange processes among the actors thanks to a very good mastery of the technologies used.

Cheikh Tidiane Mbaye, general manager of the SONATEL says that his company is happy with this partnership which enables to make the first integrated offer of data services on both the Mobile and the Internet in Senegal and in West Africa.

³As an operator, SONATEL is of course looking for new growth relays for the classic offers on the mobile. The partnership with Manobi-France directly meets that need by opening for us, with a controlled investment, important prospects of getting customers who request data services and whom we will better satisfy together. The coherence of the service offer that will be endowed to Manobi- Senegal will in particular, enable us to better organize and optimize more rapidly our investments in infrastructures in the rural areas by obtaining for example more sophisticated assessment data on the local economic activity.²

Manobi-France, which is both a virtual operator and provider of value added services has its headquarters in Montpellier (France). The company was founded by a French Senegalese team specialising in telecommunications, Internet and agro-industrial markets. Manobi deploys its multi modal platforms (Wap, SMS, MMS, iMode, Web,) and terminals (mobile telephone, PDA, PC) in developing countries and Europe in order to establish interactions through the mobile networks and the Internet among the professionals of the agribusiness sector. The services generate both traffic for the operators and new income for the users. The R&D activities are carried out at the Montpellier center, which ensures the long distance management of the exploitation of the external platforms. MANOBI-FRANCE has 7 employees in Montpellier. Senegal is the first African country where it has ses up.

ONLINE COFFEE AUCTION ALLOWS SELLERS TO ACHIEVE BETTER PRICE

Africanlion.com is wholly owned by Lion Coffee Co Ltd, a registered Coffee brokerage by Coffee Board Kenya & Mild Coffee traders Association of East Africa. The online commodity trading venture was formed by Titus Gitau and Stephen Njukia in 1999, both having worked in fertilizer and grain trading respectively.

The auction software was customized and developed locally by Sawasa.com. The target commodities include coffee, tea and other agricultural products from east/central Africa.

The first Internet Auction was held in April 2002 in conjunction with Eastern African Fine Coffee Association (EAFCA) and was deemed to be Africa’s first successful internet coffee auction. It involved months of preparations as individual countries liquored and cupped their finest coffees. Finalist eventually met in Kampala in early March and a regional competition took place pitting each country’s finest coffee against one another. The panel of jurors involved included regional coffee board liqourers and international liquors from Japan and the US.

The winning coffees were then sent via courier to prospective buyers worldwide. Interested buyers then registered their companies on africanlion.com in preparation for auction date which was to run 24 hrs from 090gmt April 14-15.

Auction ran superbly. The software worked magnificently. The winning lot of Kenya from Kenya fetched usd453 per 50 kg bag a price not seen since coffee booms of earlier decades.

BURKINA’S AGRO-PRODUCERS ASSOCIATION PLANS TRANSPORT COST INFO

The National Federation of Agro food Industries and Processing in Burkina Faso (FIAB) was started in September 1991. It has more than sixty (60) enterprises who are members from :

FIAB is a professionals association and its main objective is to represent and defend its members interests and to promote the growth of their activities. FIAB has also the following objectives:

Our agric-info project started in 1999 and is a partnership with IICD. In order to cover the whole country, FIAB is organised into five areas and in each area there is a decentralised branch of FIAB.

The main objectives of the project are:

-to train members in the use of ICT

The activities carried so far include:

FIAB offers its members agric-info on the products its members are involved with across Burkina Faso. The information includes: prices of primary materials, the cost of processing equipment, costs and availability of transport and offers and requests for products. The aim is to collect information through the regional offices. The information on transport availability will also be included in the coming months. The primary source of this information will be the "transport exchange" (Bourse de Fret) which is one of the organisations which collects this information and we will be putting it up on the FIAB web site and also sending it by e-mail to those who request it.

www.fiab.bf

CTA has recently devoted its web magazine ICT Update to Agricultural Market Information Systems (http://ictupdate.cta.int) . Besides four articles (including one on Manobi by Daniel Anerose), CTA makes available a comprehensive resource with links to news articles, projects etc.