Article: How to keep in touch with farmers during the pandemic?

30 June 2020

Duncan Sones, June 2020

Agribusinesses are increasingly exploring how digital communication can help build relationships with smallholder farmers. Many have found that radio, SMS/text messaging and automated voice messaging can reduce costs, increase impact, and deliver services in a more efficient way.

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting additional impetus into these changes, given that large gatherings are no longer desirable or possible. Even though social distancing rules are now being eased in many places, it is likely that there will be further disruptions in the future that will again halt face-to-face training activities – so setting up crisis-proof communications channels is good business. Good planning and development work now can help companies come up with better communication strategies that are more responsive to farmers’ needs, have greater impact, and are better value for money.

AgDevCo has recently prepared new guides on using radio and on using SMS/text messages or automated voice messages for communicating with smallholder farmers, based on the experience of our agribusiness partners. Follow the links to read more.

Reviewing your options and creating a strategy

If you are looking to adapt your communications strategy to this new reality, you will need to determine what information you need to communicate and how you can best deliver that information.

These are confusing and scary times for everyone, including smallholder farmers. Farmers need to be reassured that you are in still business and that (in the case of offtakers) you plan to purchase what they grow. They also need to know what adjustments you are taking to support them and keep them safe.

You may also want to use new communication channels to inform or remind farmers about good agricultural practices that they should be applying. Whereas in the past you may have presented training in terms of a whole season’s requirements at a training day, radio, mobile or digital technologies lend themselves to packages of just-in-time information.

Key questions to consider in selecting the right channels for reaching farmers are:

  • Do many of the 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 most 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 on subjects that they have already been trained on?

The answers to these questions can help you to determine whether radio, SMS/text messaging, automated voice messaging, WhatsApp, or video are the right options for you at this time.

As you develop your strategy, you will need to check your ideas and assumptions against the reality on the ground. Be sure to involve your extension team as much as possible: find out what they know about how information flows within the community. How do farmers currently get in touch with the extension officers, and what questions are they are asking?

Consulting farmers themselves

You will also need to consult some farmers themselves about the strategy. (You can contact them by phone if meeting in person is not possible.) For example, if you are considering using radio to communicate with farmers, you will need to know about the radio listening habits of farming households. Are they loyal to particular stations? Do they value the radio as source of agricultural information? Would their attitudes change if they knew your company was developing the content of the radio programs? The farmers you consult at this stage can form a “user panel” to give you feedback on the messages you are sharing, to help you iron out the bugs.

Two important points to think about as you develop your approach are:

  • What media assets do you have already? For example, if you have already invested in producing farmer training videos, you could copy portions of the soundtrack and send them to farmers’ phones as automated voice messages.
  • How can you source questions from farmers, to make your content more responsive to their needs? For example, you may want to provide a phone number that farmers can use to send their follow-up questions to you by SMS/text message.

Look for a simple approach that will work both for the farmers and for the extension team. It is possible that older technologies (e.g. radio) or simple solutions (e.g. SMS/text messaging) may be more effective in reaching farmers than the newest high-tech systems.

You should also think about the expertise you have in house. Your younger staff members are likely to be most innovative with ideas about options for reaching farmers using social media or radio. They may also be most confident in using their phones to create content.

If you are new to working in digital media, you will probably need a partner to help you. This may be a radio station or a telecoms company that is able to send out SMS/text or voice messages. Prices vary considerably for SMS and voice messaging services, but bulk discounts of 75% or more on the retail price are common. Radio stations are all different and the value-for-money calculation will be based on their reach, reputation, and professionalism, rather than on price alone. If you are looking to build a long-term relationship and you can deliver large audiences of farmers then you have a lot to offer a radio station, and this may help you get a good price.


Spreading the word

Once you have put in place these new communications channels, the next step is to make sure that farmers know about them. This might be sharing the times of radio programs, or explaining how to register to receive SMS text or voice messages.

Encourage lead farmers or community leaders to spread the word in farming communities. Even if your contact with farmers is limited, you will probably have some face-to-face interactions over the coming months, in order to distribute inputs or to buy their production. Think about how you can use these interactions to inform farmers about the channels you are providing.

If you make smart choices about your media and who to partner with, make good use of your existing communications materials, reallocate staff to the tasks that suit their skills, and (very importantly) keep it simple, you should have the makings of a very successful strategy.

Read more:

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