In the last few decades, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have provided immense opportunities for the social and economic development of rural people, and some technologies have surpassed others. Mobile telephony is one such technology that has developed significantly in the past few years, and the subscription rate in developing countries has gone up from 22 per 100 inhabitants in 2005 to 91.8 per 100 inhabitants in 2015. Mobile technology goes beyond geographic, socio-economic, and cultural barriers and this large increase in mobile subscriptions, along with the recent roll out of 3G and 4G technology, can play a big role in the development of rural people. Mobile phones are devices that can create, store, access, and share information anytime, anywhere. But they are more than that. When teamed with extension and advisory services, they can help improve the livelihoods of rural people by getting much needed timely information to their fingertips at potentially low cost. So-called mobile-based extension and advisory services (mExtension, see Box 1) enable value-added services, such as mobile agro-services and machine to machine services, (1)
Philosophy & Principles
Mobile-based extension and advisory services (mExtension) are location specific and, at the same time, able to transcend geographic limitations. The principles of mExtension are as follows:
- Content: The content and design should be user-centric. Combining value-added services and mobile financial services can be both attractive and sustainable.
- Delivery mechanism: The business and pricing model, mode of delivery (text, interactive voice response, call, pictures, videos, etc.), and choice of application-based versus normal access should depend on maximising client access and not the benefit of the service provider. (3)(3) Saravanan, R. and Suchiradipta, B. 2014. Mobile phone applications for agricultural extension in India. In: Saravanan, R. (ed.) Mobile phones for agricultural extension: Worldwide mAgri innovations and promise for future. New Delhi, India: New India Publishing Agency.
- Reach and interaction: Rigorous awareness-raising programmes should be conducted to increase reach, and the services should be interactive to ensure clients’ needs are being met.
- Communication, not just advisory: mExtension should encourage increased dialogue between the stakeholders in agricultural innovation systems rather than providing farmers with information. This will facilitate capacity development of farmers and pass farmers’ knowledge and experience back to the development arena.
- Sustainability: Both financial and infrastructural sustainability can be ensured by using a profit-based model of information delivery.
- Integration of technology: Different formats such as web portals, videos, voice, pictures and animations, etc. can be easily accessed from mobile phones, thus making integration of technology easier and efficient, and increasing the scope of mExtension.
- Reassessment vs development: Often it is better to build on existing services rather than coming up with new ones. This is likely to be more sustainable as the client is familiar with the services and the service provider has infrastructure to build upon. (4)(4) Addom, B.K. and Moy, L. 2014. Mobile phone applications along the agricultural commodity value chain. In: Saravanan, R. (ed.) Mobile phones for agricultural extension: Worldwide mAgri innovations and promise for future. New Delhi, India: New India Publishing Agency.
- Associated services: mExtension can only go so far in enabling economic development of the rural community. Infrastructure like roads, electricity, education, market and credit access, and so on are also required. So investments in these are at least as important as timely information delivery, sometimes even more so.
Box 1: mExtension
There are various modes – push and pull SMS, interactive voice response, mobile apps, and so on – through which mExtension services are provided either individually or in combination. While SMS and interactive voice response services are accessible from both conventional and smart phones, mobile apps require smart phones. Services can be free or subscription-based. Cost does not seem to affect popularity as shown by services such asIKSL in India,iCow in Kenya, Kilimo Salama in Kenya and Rwanda, and e-Krishok in Bangladesh. Mobile-based advisory services are mostly targeted at farmers and the rural population but collaboration among stakeholders in agricultural innovation systems (AIS) for providing content is not unknown. The advisory services also vary from providing solely agricultural information (e.g. Gobi Sahana Sarana in Sri Lanka) to providing micro insurance to rural people (Kilimo Salama in Kenya and Rwanda), real time market information (e-soko active in 10 African countries), farmer-specific fertiliser recommendations (NMRiceMobilein Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Phillipines and West Africa) or integrating agricultural and weather information along with entertainment to attract large numbers of rural people (Nokia Life Tools). (2)
The following should be taken into account to ensure long-term success:
Baseline survey: A baseline survey is needed to understand the information needs of rural clients, the type of mobile phones they use, and the pattern of mobile phone use.
Content Management System (CMS) and device dependency: A CMS enables multiple users to have different permission levels for collecting, managing, and publishing of information in any form or medium. The service provider needs to have expertise on the CMS to select and upload suitable content. The content should be equally accessible through smart and conventional phones, the former being developer-friendly and the latter being more popular in emerging markets.
(7) Barrantes, R. and Aguero, A. 2014. Mobile phone applications for agricultural extension in Peru. In: Saravanan, R. (ed.) Mobile phones for agricultural extension: Worldwide mAgri innovations and promise for future. New Delhi, India: New India Publishing Agency.
Staff selection: While dedicated staff are needed for large scale services, text-based services can be handled by extensionists.
Scalability and sustainability goals: Sustainability is a problem with ICT projects and so there need to be clear goals and benchmarks for financial sustainability of the project without depending on a funding agency.
Adding the extras: Mobile apps, call centre services, and peer-to-peer connection facilities with online and offline accessibility can be of added advantage.
Technical illiteracy is also a major challenge in active use of mobile phones and this issue needs to be addressed before rolling out mExtension services. Rigorous awareness-raising and training on using mobile phones to access the service are also needed for proper utilisation of the potential mExtension has to offer.
Table 1. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges
In mExtension, the solution provider and service provider need to keep information updated regularly. Where funding agencies are involved, transparent fund flow is necessary along with internal monitoring and eventual external evaluation. Since numerous stakeholders are involved, with different roles, there should be regular follow-up of work done to ensure proper coordination.
Costs will vary depending on the scale of the project, services provided, and model, but generally fall under the following headings:
- infrastructure development and procurement
- awareness creation and training
- maintenance of infrastructure
- costs to generate, curate, evaluate, localise and customise information.
- Target group: mExtension can facilitate creation of scalable, replicable, and commercially sustainable advisory services for rural clients. Efforts should be made to target women to benefit from mobile technology.
- Innovations: Adapting services depending on client needs, preferences, and socio-economic conditions requires constant innovation.
- Ecological and institutional setting: While ICT infrastructure is needed for organisations, clients need to have access to mobile phones and network services to access the advisory services.
Evidence of impact
(15) Dickert, M. 2011. Mr Yunus, telephone ladies and the development jigsaw.
Potential scalability and issues of sustainability
Financial sustainability is a major issue in mExtension. While paid services are still subject to skeptic opinions, there is much evidence of mobile-based paid advisory services that are being subscribed to by large numbers of rural people in developing countries. Establishment costs do need to be externally funded, but at later stages a profit-oriented model has the advantages of being scalable, sustainable, and client need-based compared to services offered free of cost.
GSMA. 2014. Mobile policy handbook.
This paper was produced with financial support from GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), and PIM (the CGIAR Research Programme on Policies, Institutions, and Markets).
This work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Funding support for this study was provided by the agencies with logos on the front page. This paper has not gone through IFPRI’s standard peer-review procedure. The opinions expressed here belong to the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of PIM, IFPRI, or CGIAR.