Innovating for inclusion: mobile agriculture at Mobile World Congress 2015

Aptly themed “the edge of innovation”, Mobile World Congress 2015 focused on the new technology trends in the world of mobile. However, as attendees ponder which wearable will be the most popular, from the mobile watch to the virtual headset, conversations were also raised on how to innovate in order to reach the next billion subscribers.

With forecasts indicating that the next billion mobile subscribers will be largely from the currently underserved rural segment, inclusion was certainly a key take-away at Mobile World Congress 2015. Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote brought operators back to the heart of this debate, highlighting the importance of network deployment and coverage to connect the unconnected. Echoing Zuckerberg, GSMA Chairman Federik Bakassas cautioned that rural networks are expensive to deploy and that network and service expansion to underserved areas is only possible with sustainable business models. Reaching the next billion users therefore requires changes in both mobile infrastructure and service offerings.

The mAgri session, ‘Sustainability and the Future of Mobile Agriculture’, discussed how to sustainably serve the rural audience. GSMA mAgri’s Victoria Clause moderated our panel of innovators: Heiko Schlittke (Managing Director, Airtel Malawi), Michael Tarazi (Senior Financial Sector Specialist at CGAP), Brandon Edwards (Executive Creative Director, frog design) and Spencer Morley (Implementation Manager, Farmforce).

Heiko Schlittke acknowledged the importance of the rural sector from the emerging market operator perspective: “The rural sector presents a huge opportunity: operators need to understand their customer and innovate in a different way.” Reaching rural markets not only allows for increased subscriber penetration; other indirect benefits can be gained. Heiko has experienced this first hand through his experience as managing director of Airtel Madagascar and proponent of their educational VAS service, 3-2-1, which has reached more than three million users.

The panel discussed the benefits of using a human-centred design (HCD) approach to tailor Agri services for their end users. Brandon Edwards presented the latest insights from the mAgri Challenge Fund’s field research, explaining that initial assumptions made by operators creating Agri services were not always correct. Frog researchers found that there is a step missing between farmers accessing and acting on expert advice – this trust barrier may be the key to unlocking behavior change in this segment. Michael Tarazi provided insights from CGAP’s research into farmers’ needs for financial services which highlight the need to adopt a bottom-up approach to agriculture mobile financial service (MFS). Traditionally MFS has been implemented top-down, driven by business needs rather than the farmers need to be financially included. However, Michael also cautioned against focusing too much the creative process and not enough on the fundamentals such as network coverage.

Understanding end-user willingness to pay is another fundamental in designing services for the bottom of the pyramid. Spencer Morley told the audience about Farmforce’s B2B model, which gives smallholder farmers access to formal markets. Using mobile and website platforms, field agents can efficiently and effectively measure farmers’ productivity. This digitized data allows smallholder produce to access formal markets by including traceability and compliance to their supply chain. The mAgri team and GSMA Intelligence published a report exploring B2B and other business models in Agri VAS which explores this topic in more detail.

It was clear that innovation in the mAgri space doesn’t just mean smart solutions (although the GSMA Intelligence/mAgri M2M report tracks some of those too!) By creating services which meet the needs of the end user, whilst mitigating understood challenges of working with the rural segment, the industry can move towards successfully and sustainably appealing to the next billion subscribers.

Let us know what you thought of the mAgri session or what your MWC experience means for mobile agriculture in the comments below, or contact [email protected].