How user-centred design can improve agri e-commerce interfaces that cater to the needs and literacy levels of smallholder farmers  

Agri e-commerce has become a viable alternative to traditional unstructured markets. E-commerce platforms have enormous potential to transform agricultural trading. They enable the selling and buying of agricultural produce online. Doing so allows farmers to sell directly to customers that would have been unreachable under traditional models. One such platform is being developed by Traderex, a commodity trading company based in Ghana.

The company is on a journey to bridge the farmer-to-buyer gap by linking farmers to wider markets where they can sell their commodities easily and fetch competitive prices. They have been facilitating agri-commodity trading offline since 2018 but are now in the transition to digital. To unlock the full potential of the e-commerce platform, its development needs to adopt a user-centric design. This blog aims to provide insights on Traderex’s journey in digitising commodity trading and how UX can unlock the adoption of the solutions among smallholder farmers.

Limited access to structured markets among smallholder farmers

Ghana has approximately 7.3 million farmers. 19% of Ghana’s GDP comes from agriculture, contributing to over 40% of its export revenue. While farming systems in the country vary with agroecological ones, cocoa, maize, rice, soybean, plantain, ground nuts, and cashew nuts are some of the key food crops traded. Most of Ghana’s farmers are smallholders with over 80% cultivating farms less than 10 hectares.

Smallholder farmers have minimal access to profitable agricultural commodity markets. Traditional agricultural commodity trading is unstructured with limited buyer choices for farmers. It results in inefficient trading systems and low profits for smallholder farmers. The system is marred with information asymmetry, another major obstacle that the farmers must deal with. Often, smallholder farmers lack information about prevailing market prices, standards of measurement and packing which leave them vulnerable to exploitation. The challenge is compounded by the inability to access proper storage facilities for their harvest. It then forces them to sell off their commodities early, usually at low prices or face post-harvest losses. These are the key challenges that the Traderex’ agri e-commerce platform is founded on.

Bridging the gap between the farmers and agricultural commodity buyers 

Traderex: Enhancing access to markets for smallholder farmers

Traderex is a commodity trading company based and operating in Ghana. They have a mission of becoming a continental leader in providing highly sought-after commodities within the shortest possible time, by utilising efficient trade channels for farmers and traders. To do this, they are building an e-commerce platform to boost commodity trading through increased access to the broader international markets and formalised commodity exchanges, including the Ghana Commodity Exchange.

So far, the company has coordinated trade from over 1500 smallholder farmers in Ghana to larger markets. Without a digital platform, they have been doing so by manually sourcing commodities from aggregators and connecting them to buyers who range from commodity processors to exporters. The platform will allow farmer commodities to be listed for buyers to order or place sourcing requests directly. In addition, by providing warehousing facilities, they will ensure that farmers are no longer under pressure to sell off their commodities early at low prices. To facilitate platform adoption and scalability, Traderex is on a journey to ensure the platform interfaces cater for the needs of all users through a user-centric design approach.

Source: Traderex

Scaling up agri e-commerce among smallholder farmers: Barriers and opportunities

Challenges with digital product design

Since their launch, Traderex has not had a digital product in the market yet. The team lacked in-house UX expertise and was fairly new to software development. As a result, they faced challenges in conceptualising the right digital products for their target users, who have low digital literacy levels. Initial ideas of what digital product to design were formed without proper UX research. One big risk that this posed to them was developing a digital product with high levels of bias leading to low chances of adoption and scalability. These challenges necessitated robust UX research and product design support to implement user-centric design thinking so that design decisions can be based on a good understanding of user problems and needs.

Support from GSMA AgriTech Accelerator

The GSMA AgriTech Accelerator programme, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) is providing Traderex with tailored technical assistance to help them fast-track the growth of their innovative digital agriculture solution. One key component of this technical assistance is UX research and design support.

UX research provided an opportunity to observe, speak to, and hear from the users that the platform is being designed for. The research was fundamental in enabling Traderex to understand the exact user problem for which they needed to design the platform. The team was empowered to make design decisions based on the insights gathered from the farmers and aggregators they work with. Further to research, we also took the team through a product iteration workshop to synthesise the research findings, ideate and bring solutions to life.

Product Iteration Workshop in Ghana, 2023. Source: GSMA

Key UX learnings that stood out during the research include:

Low digital literacy among the smallholder farmers

Although some of the farmers in the communities have smartphones, they only use them for making calls, sending SMS and taking pictures.  They do not see technology as a means of facilitating farming transactions and prefer to always engage with community aggregators whenever they want to sell their commodities. Before the research, Traderex intended to build a USSD-based service that would allow farmers to sell their harvest at a fair price. The field research highlighted that farmers need assisted onboarding and listing of commodities on the platform as it would be too difficult for them to use USSD. As a result, it led to the design of a mobile phone application for aggregators to provide that support to the farmers.

Aggregators, a gateway to digitising the farmer processes

The aggregators working with smallholder farmers in the communities are comfortable with technology. They demonstrated a willingness to learn how to use digital services (such as apps and USSD). During the product iteration workshop, the team decided to focus on a mobile app over USSD. This is because it allows for more features and improved data collection besides providing an offline mode for areas with limited connectivity. However, it needs to be made simple enough to ensure ease of input, navigation, intuitive flows, etc. to eliminate any usability struggles. Ease of use will ensure they can easily support farmers to derive the value of the platform. In addition, aggregators consider offline capabilities as key to enabling the capture of data in rural areas with limited connectivity.

A simple onboarding process for farmers is vital

To sell their commodities through the platform, farmers need to be onboarded for product listing. However, complex and lengthy onboarding processes are a pain not only to the farmers but also to the aggregators supporting them. During the product iteration workshop, the team worked on designing simple UX flows for onboarding farmers, reducing the number of variables to input and screens to flip through. Simple and intuitive UX flows will be significant in promoting adoption and scalability.

Streamlined buying processes are attractive for traders

Similar to farmers, buyers also need to be onboarded on the platform to access product listings. The research uncovered key usability needs for the buyers including instant access to information and online ordering of goods listed by the farmers within a short time. Although technology adoption among buyers is higher, the complex onboarding and ordering process would still be a pain.  The workshop provided user-friendly UX designs for interactive interfaces that support the onboarding and buying process. They will ensure that the buyers can access all the product listings as well as place sourcing requests without multiple phone calls, as was previously necessary.

Prospects for the future

Supported by the GSMA Accelerator, Traderex will be rolling out its e-commerce platform early in the year 2024. This interface will bear features that support the listing of commodities from farmers, sourcing requests and automated approval of orders from buyers.  In 2024, they aim to incorporate additional service offerings for smallholder farmers such as access to inputs and financing. The services will not only further improve smallholders’ livelihoods but also enhance their financial inclusion.

The GSMA AgriTech Accelerator is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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