Uganda farmers will need plows ... and smart phones

As studies in India and more recently Niger have shown, market information — data for farmers on agricultural commodity prices, suppliers and buyers — plays a critical role in rural development across the emerging world.

Uganda is the latest country to attempt a market information revolution. I was fortunate to work with the team at Infotrade Uganda, the start-up that is implementing market information across the country.

With annual GDP growth averaging above 7 percent over the last five years, an expected windfall of $2 billion per year from imminent commercial oil production, and faster internet speeds than in some developed countries, optimists say Uganda is a country on the march.

Critics counter that, for most Ugandans, the growth figures mean very little. About eight out of every 10 Ugandans eek out a meager living through subsistence farming, far from the glitzy office buildings, consumer culture and speedy internet of the capital, Kampala.

But behind the headlines about petrodollars, surging real estate prices and death-defying pop stars (a story for another day), Ugandan agriculture is entering a mini-revolution.

Led by Kampala-based entrepreneur Robert Kintu, the team at Infotrade Uganda is aiming to bring rural farmers into the digital age.

When equipped with accurate, up-to-date price information on the commodities they produce, Kintu argues, farmers will be in a position to make the transition from subsistence agriculture to commercial farming. It is this evolution — and more importantly the associated mindset shift — that could lift millions of farmers out of poverty. He also says that the concept will fail unless it is profitable for all stakeholders — including Infotrade.

What’s the benefit of market information? Kintu and others cite examples such as if farmers don’t know the wholesale price of :matooke" (a Ugandan staple, similar to a plantain) in their local market, they can’t possibly figure out if their farm can turn a profit this season.

Not only that, farmers run the risk of being swindled by buyers, who might offer them 2,000 shillings per bunch for their produce. Keen to meet the needs of their families, they might accept the price. But access to market information would mean the farmer would have known that the real price of matooke in, say, their home district of Arua, is actually 8,000 shillings a bunch. This simple piece of information would have a similar impact for farmers across the country.

Infotrade has put its money where its mouth is. Now in its third year of operation, the company gathers and disseminates wholesale and retail prices for over 45 commodities in more than 20 locations around the country, using a network of locally based researchers to compile the data.

The data team updates the prices three times a week, and the information is made available online, at village notice boards, on the radio, and perhaps most importantly, by text message. With 10 million Ugandans already owning a mobile phone, and a fast-growing mobile penetration rate, soon all farmers will in theory be a push of a button away from knowing the market price of their crop at the same cost as a short phone call.

But there remains a major challenge to encourage some farmers to see the value not only in viewing their operation as a business, but also in using data to help them become better businessmen.

Some catch on quickly and reap the benefits: a healthy enterprise means they can afford school fees, transport costs, household items and investments back into the business. Others lack the education or impetus to break with traditional farming practices and therefore require more support from local farmers’ groups and NGOs.

Infotrade’s ambition doesn’t end with price information. The company aims to make data available to farmers covering every link in the value chain, from costs associated with seeds, fertilizer, tools, machinery, ancillary services, and distribution, all the way to the price a customer pays for a bunch of matooke at the market stall.

The task may seem daunting, but Kintu and his team are working with the support of government, district farmers’ organizations, input suppliers, commodity buyers, international donors and local and international NGOs. This is something of a rare case in aid-saturated Uganda where all stakeholders are focusing on a single goal: to digitize Ugandan agriculture.

Stewart K Kelly is an international affairs master’s candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is co-founder of the Fletcher Africa Business Group, and a research associate at Fletcher’s Center for Emerging Market Enterprises. Stewart spent the summer with Infotrade in Kampala, Uganda, as a marketing and product development consultant. He can be contacted at [email protected].