There are some 100 million small farms in ASEAN. When we imagine what it would be like to make a living from a single acre of corn, rice or cocoa, while struggling to pay school fees and medical costs, most of us are rightly empathetic.
However, when it comes to developing digital solutions to for small farms this empathy can be both a powerful enabler, and a serious blinder. At its best, empathy drives entrepreneurs who are building finance, training or logistic solution to listen to farmers, and build solutions that address real needs. At its worst, empathy can lead us to build solutions that don’t work.
When we adopt a benevolent attitude toward farmers, we tend to project on to them what we feel they “should” have access to. It is surprisingly common to see a new digital solution built because farmers should have access to low interest loans or farmers should have access to more than one buyer.
Building something because it should exist is not the best place to start. Instead, the best digital innovations seek to address a pain point. Solutions which reach scale and have an impact, can solve a real problem for an actor in a small holder value chain - something the actor is genuinely concerned about and will pay to have the problem solved.
Earlier this month, we took a group of seven digital startup founders and seven agribusiness leaders to West Sumatra for three days to consult with farmers, lenders and traders – mapping the issues from the perspective of these actors. We put aside our assumptions about what we thought should happen and attempted to dig into the real issues.
The team from Tandemic gave us a whole range of Human Centered Design (HCD) tools to narrow in on the issues, asking why, and why again (and sometimes a third or fourth time) to get to the core the challenges. At the start of the week, I had a simplistic view of a farmer as a lone small business operator. However, after asking enough questions, I came to see the farmer as a business partner with their land owner, working together towards a shared outcome: a great harvest.
I have always had a passion for seeing farmers access loans for fertilizers and crop protection products, but the HCD tools made me see the problem differently – at least in the Sumatra context. I now see the land owner, not the farmer as the key to solving the financing challenge. This realization changed how I and others in the program see the challenge and helped many of us begin developing new ideas to improve access to finance which are based on the actual pain points of land owners.
If you are building digital solutions for smallholder farmers, ensuring your digital product meets users' needs is key to your success and HCD is one of the best tools for you to do that. If you are interested in learning more about future events and insights on how digital solutions for smallholder farmers can be developed and scaled, visit www.growasiaseries.com.