Farmers are dialing for seeds to make money in Mali

The nonprofit myAgro in Mali helps small-scale farmers, both men and women, increase their harvests and their profits using an SMS-based layaway system to buy fertilizer and seeds. The group also teaches farmers new growing techniques. Photo courtesy of myAgro

"What if you could buy fertilizer and seeds the same way that you buy prepaid minutes for your phone?" thought microfinance specialist Anushka Ratnayake.

At the time, Ratnayake was working in Kenya for an organization that provided loans to farmers.

To test her mobile layaway model, Ratnayake moved to Mali, a country ripe for such an idea. Mali is one of the 25 poorest countries in the world with about 80 percent of its workforce involved in agriculture, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Also in Mali, "people aren't afraid to give their opinion, so it was very interactive from the beginning," she said.

In 2011, Ratnayake started the nonprofit myAgro, which enables farmers of crops such as corn and peanuts to make large purchases of seeds and fertilizer in small, incremental payments.

The farmers register with myAgro, and buy $1-$25 prepaid myAgro cards — the same way they would buy talk time on their phones — from their local stores. They then text myAgro their payment amount, and once they reach the total amount for the agricultural products, myAgro delivers the goods in time for the next planting season.

Ratnayake said when she first met with farmers and introduced the method of the prepaid cards and texting a code to purchase agricultural supplies, there was surprisingly little resistance. "Farmers said, 'We get it, we want it.' One farmer told us, 'This is so obvious, I've wanted something like this.'"

"It's not new technology, just a new use of it," she said.

One of myAgro's monitoring and evaluation interns prepares to measure the output in a participating farmers' peanut field in Beneko, Mali. By measuring the yield within the roped-off areas, the organization can extrapolate the harvest from the entire field. Photo courtesy of myAgro

MyAgro started with 240 farmers in its first season of operation in 2012. It tapped into an existing program run by Oxfam America and other aid groups called Saving for Change, where farmers in a community meet regularly and pool their money in a joint savings plan.

The farmers already had a bit of money, and myAgro's mobile layaway program could help them purchase fertilizer and seeds, Ratnayake said. "If it's a useful and convenient financial tool, they're interested in using it."

Private seed suppliers were glad to have the myAgro farmers as a new market. They sent technicians to advise the newly enrolled farmers on how to plant the certified seeds with special fertilizing techniques.

"When a technician is there on the field at planting as opposed to six months earlier in a theoretical classroom training, it's much more impactful and easier to help farmers adapt their behavior," said Ratnayake.

The group also added nutrition education to their training sessions in response to women farmers who were looking to diversify their families' meals.

MyAgro's goal is to get farmers in the program to move from subsistence farming — just feeding their own families — to selling produce at markets and making a profit. With the increased income, the participants often reinvest in their farms and make other investments, such as building roofs, sending their children to high school and buying motorcycles to get their goods to markets more easily.

The nonprofit is now working with 10,000 farmers, and plans to have 15,000 participating by next summer. It has added a pilot program in Senegal. "We're on a mission to get to a million farmers by 2025," said Ratnayake. "Working with farmers is an important way of ending global poverty."

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