A wide range of digital tools might prove helpful to smallholder farmers. In theory, anything from online trading to AI imaging could add value to farming operations. But what can we learn from talking to farmers? Rather than heading into a village to gain feedback on a new idea, what can we gain from asking farmers how they use technology today?
With the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Grow Asia did just that. We interviewed 100 farmers across the region from Indonesia, to Vietnam and Myanmar, and what we learnt - which can be found in this report - surprised us. We found that farmers are active users of technology, but not of the applications or tools which have been specifically developed for farming. Overwhelmingly, farmers instead prefer to repurpose WhatsApp, Facebook and other messaging and social media tools to support their farming operations.
We observed farmers moving through five stages of digital adoption. These stages are identified on the graph below, which highlights the approximate number of farmers at each stage.
Most farmers are still at the stage of starting their digital journey with a basic mobile phone, and are increasing their efficiency by making calls to suppliers, customers and lenders to avoid the cost in-person travel.
The next step is joining a village level chat group where they share farming techniques, new products and market information with peers, including local retailers and these groups represent the largest use of digital tools by farmers in Southeast Asia today. A small number of farmers have moved on from these groups to “active discovery” and begun to use web searches and video streaming sites to seek out advice and form connections beyond their immediate community.
The attraction of local chat groups appears to be that they build on existing lines of trust as farmers feel comfortable sharing with and learning from people they know. While many digital entrepreneurs see the potential of technology as expanding the horizon of farmers and opening new opportunities, the farmers we spoke to see technology very differently. They want tools which deepen existing relationships and lines of communication.
Therefore, we encourage businesses, governments and NGOs to read the full report as it explores all the stages of smallholders’ digital adoption habits in detail and their motivations at each stage. The report includes six key implication for industry leaders including:
Build on in-person relationships: The bulk of digital communication that farmers engage in is with someone they know already. The existing personal relationships that your business holds with farmers are critical assets in digitization. The industry should consider digitization as a decentralized activity, driven by staff in villages, not as a centrally planned program.
Reward chat: Train, encourage and reward staff to use chat-based technologies. The measures you currently use such as in-person training attendance, or farmer field days could be complemented with chat-based metrics.
Identify influencers: Only a fraction of farmers practice active discovery, using web searches and video streaming to explore new ideas and products outside of their peer circle. However, while they’re a minority, these farmers infuse new ideas into local peer group dialogues and as a result, they act as powerful influencers and are an important conduit for new ideas and approaches.