Article: Reaching farmers through bulk SMS/text messaging or automated voice messaging

June 30, 2020

Duncan Sones, June 2020

Increasing rates of phone ownership in Africa means that phone-based services can be a good option for reaching smallholder farmers, even in rural areas.

Key questions to consider in deciding on a strategy are:

  • Do many of your farmers have phones?
  • Do they have smartphones?
  • Do you have a list of farmers’ phone numbers?
  • If not, is there some way you can get hold of their phone numbers?
  •  Can many farmers read well enough to understand the information you would like to send them?
  • Are your messages complex or new to the farmers, or do you only need to send reminders and updates?

It is not necessary for every farmer to own a mobile phone in order to get messages to your farmers. Farmers are very good at sharing useful information. If you are relying on a small number of recipients to share information with their neighbours, you need to package the information so that it is easy to remember. (If lead farmers or contact farmers are tasked with spreading information to others, you may need to remind them to maintain social distancing – that is, keeping far enough apart that their outstretched arms cannot touch.)

If your farmers have only basic phones and you have their contact details, then you can send them SMS (text) messages or automated voice messages. SMS messages work well for sending simple information like market prices and weather information. More complicated information may run into several SMS messages, which will make them more difficult to read.

With automated voice messaging, the recipient’s phone rings as it would with any call, and they then hear a pre-recorded message. Until recently this has been used less often in agricultural extension work – but it can be a powerful tool, particularly if:

  • Most farmers cannot read well. (But remember that many farming households have children who can read even if the adults cannot.)
  • The information you need to convey is complex.
  • You are encouraging farmers to adopt new practices.

Downsides to using automated voice messaging are:

  •  The cost is significantly higher than SMS.
  •  Recording an automated voice message requires skill and careful planning. The message must be clear and presented in an engaging manner so that farmers will want to stay on the line to listen.

If this is the first time you are using reaching farmers via phone, you should aim to keep things simple.

Pros and cons of text versus voice

  SMS/text messaging Automated voice messaging
Cost Low cost Higher cost
Message length Limited to 160 characters, or around 25 words. A one-minute message will contain about 180 words, equivalent to around six text messages.
Delivery Messages will be sent to the phone number and picked up next time the phone is active. Can only connect to a phone that is charged, switched on, and within the coverage area. Most service providers will attempt to send the message to the phone three times – if missed, the farmer will not receive the message.
Feedback The service provider will probably not be able to tell you how many farmers have opened or read the messages. The service provider will be able to provide detailed information on how many farmers received the call and how many listened to the end.

 

Building a database of farmers’ contacts

Even if you do not already have a single database of farmers’ phone numbers, it is likely that your extension teams and other staff already have many farmers’ numbers. You can compile these into a single database and then clean this to remove duplicates. You must ensure you process the phone numbers in accordance with all applicable data protection laws.

Working with a third-party service provider 

If you are new to sending automated voice messaging or SMS texts, you will need to work with a media service provider. In many countries, there is a very competitive marketplace for the provision of voice and text services. Services vary from the brokerage of airtime (as in the box below), to more integrated services that will include sending SMS text, recording and sending automated voice messaging, translating messages in the required languages, and providing follow-up surveys to assess the impact of the messages. Some providers may be able to give you a short code, giving farmers an easier way to reply to you by SMS.

When you are sending bulk SMS text messages at scale, you should expect up to a 75% discount on the normal SMS text price. (See the case study below for an example.)

When reviewing your options, you must ensure that the service provider will not use your phone number database for other purposes, and will not share it with any other organisations. This should be an explicit condition in the agreement. It is also a good idea to include some staff phone numbers in the lists, as a check on what messages the service provider is sending and when.

Call centres

One way to redeploy extension staff who are unable to work in the field is to establish a call centre that can take enquiries. Some telecoms providers can staff these lines with experts, and others can set them up for you. If you are working in multiple languages, you may need to set up different numbers for each language.

Providing a toll-free line can be a useful part of the strategy, but there may be long delays in getting these numbers established.

What makes an effective SMS or automated voice message? 

Writing SMS messages is not easy: it takes time and effort to prepare an effective message.

Common to SMS and automated voice messages

The message should:

  • Be clear about the actions it is calling for and the products to be used.
  • Avoid jargon and technical language. Remember that farmers know brand names of inputs, not the active ingredients. Describe units of measure in ways that farmers understand and can replicate.
  • Be brief: a single SMS has a limit of 160 characters; automated voice messages should not be longer than one minute.
  • Be timely: farmers need to have time to implement the advice, especially if they need to obtain inputs.
  • Provide a way to obtain follow-up information – ideally a toll-free number.
SMS/text messages

The message should also:

  • Avoid abbreviations that may be confusing.
Automated voice messages

The message should also:

  • Be well-paced and easy to listen to. 

 

It is very important to plan the content of messages carefully. The message needs to convey all the necessary information, but should not waste resources. Bear in mind that, if you are seeking to reach 10,000 farmers, then sending one additional SMS message to each farmer will cost US$300–500 in total, and sending an additional one-minute automated voice message will cost US$300–1700.

Take time to draft the messages that you will send. You should then test the messages by sending them to a small number of farmers and checking on their understanding.

The CABI – Africa Soil Health Consortium has a useful guidance note on preparing text message campaigns.

Case study: SMS/text messaging

Sociedade Algodoeira do Niassa João Ferreira dos Santos (SAN-JFS) is a cotton production, processing and exporting company in Mozambique. Distributing key information to the more than 40,000 smallholder farmers that the company works with has historically been challenging.

In 2016, the company started using bulk SMS messaging to address this communications challenge. At that time, phone ownership was low in Mozambique as result of poor phone and electricity network coverage in the country, so the company secured donor funding to distribute mobile phones to 15,000 farmers, and also provided solar panels for phone charging.

The company now reaches around a third of its smallholder farmers with SMS messages. Messages are sent twice a week, with information about cotton farming practices, market prices, purchasing days, and sometimes other key information – such as about how farmers should protect themselves from COVID-19. Farmers are able to respond by SMS or by phone to the company’s call centre, to ask follow-up questions or request inputs or services.

Text messages are cheap and easy to send, but they rely on farmers being able to read. This is an important barrier in a region in which few farmers received a good education.

SAN-JFS has found it is important to make deliberate efforts to keep the database of farmers’ contact details up to date. The company also operates a call centre that farmers can contact for additional information.

 

Case study: using automated voice messaging

Faranaya Agribusiness Centre is a sorghum aggregator located in the Upper East Region of Ghana. The company uses automated voice messages to reach 13,000 smallholder sorghum farmers each week.

All messages are less than one minute long. The recordings are made in two local languages, so that each farmer receives the message in a language they understand. The messages are usually focused on agronomic information, but they have also recently included information on precautions to take during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Messages are sent on the same day each week, so that farmers know that they should have their phone charged and switched on. Faranaya has found that the best time to send the messages is in the evening, so the process of sending the messages begins at 7pm. (However, it takes several hours for the system to call all of the farmers in the database with the messages.)

Faranaya pays a wholesale price of under $0.03 per minute for these calls, so each message costs less than $390 to reach 13,000 farmers. The service provider, a Ghanaian company called mNotifier, provides a dashboard to review the reach of the communications campaign. The messages usually reach around 80–90% of farmers in the database. 

Recognising that messages sent in this way are more likely to reach male farmers, Faranaya is working to set up a credit scheme to make mobile phones available to more women.

 

Using WhatsApp

If significant numbers of farmers have smartphones there are more options, such as using WhatsApp groups to send videos or share links to video resources.

There are two versions of WhatsApp. With the standard version, you can set up WhatsApp groups that will enable farmers to chat with each other, but the maximum group size is limited. WhatsApp Business allows you to send messages to farmers and for them to respond to you, but they cannot see information about or interact with the other farmers.

Apart from text and voice messages, WhatsApp can also be used to distribute videos – such as videos on farming practices that you have made or that are available from Access Agriculture. Make sure that any videos sent by WhatsApp are compressed to as small a file size as possible, so that recipients do not have to use a lot of data to download and view the video. A second option is to send links to videos hosted on YouTube or a similar site. However, you may find that farmers are reluctant to follow links. In Ghana, CABI found that few farmers followed links to view videos – but when they followed up with an automated voice message encouraging people to tap on the link, the number of viewings increased tenfold.

 

Acknowledgements:

AgDevCo is grateful to Solomon Atigah of the Faranaya Agri-Business Centre, Avelino Lopes of SAN-JFS and CABI – Africa Soil Health Consortium for generously sharing their experience and expertise, as well as to Keith Sones for review and editing.

AgDevCo’s Smallholder Development Unit is supported by the Mastercard Foundation and UK aid.