Thanks for the interest you have taken in ShambaIO and for your constructive feedback! We’d love to hear more about your work in Africa – what are you working on, what’s going well, and what operational challenges do you still face? Would you be willing to share more details about your point of view and experiences on the continent? We’d love to incorporate more of your insights into ShambaIO, so it would even be great to schedule a quick phone call if you have time.
I see you’ve raised several good questions in your comments, to summarize: (1) Is ShambaIO focused on produce? (2) How does ShambaIO help farmers directly? (3) How does ShambaIO reduce food waste? (4) How is ShambaIO meaningfully differentiated from other smallholder data management systems?
Allow me to provide further clarification:
1. Is ShambaIO focused on produce? We have been casting a wide net for our design research phase. We have interviewed several food-related agribusinesses—most of whom have expressed similar interest in joining our pilot. In addition to Gijs’ great team of mango and potato farmers at Just Farming in Bangladesh, we have also spoken with the founder at Kokoa Kamili, a cocoa company in Tanzania, and Nick Handler, the Director of Global Operations at One Acre Fund, who grow maize with hundreds of thousands of farmers across East Africa.
We are developing a platform to help farmer organizations, most of whom work in food. Our goal is to develop a platform that optimizes smallholder outreach, in order to have the greatest impact possible. Indeed, in our interview and prototype feedback sessions to date, none of the food-focused organizations expressed any concerns that our approach to helping field extension staff reach more farmers is inherently product-specific. CONT below.
2. How does ShambaIO help farmers directly? I also wanted to be clear about our theory of change. One quote that has always stuck with me from Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka: "Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish, or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry."
At ShambaIO, we seek to revolutionize rural food supply chains, by connecting farmers to large, high-value markets.
In traditional rural supply chains, isolated farmers sell through informal distributors into low-value markets. Individual BOP farmers have limited market access. As a result, they are dependent on local distributors who: operate small-scale operations, can be exploitative, and service informal, low-value markets. The result is basement pricing for farmers and seasonal food waste from unsold goods.
Farmers can substantially increase their earnings by partnering with formal organizations, including cooperatives, NGOs, social enterprises, and agribusinesses. These organizations add value by creating access to: (1) national and international markets, (2) formal-sector buyers, (3) negotiating power to get good sales deals, and (4) value-adding processing of raw inputs.
Many organizations want to work directly with farmers in order to increase sales of high-value produce. They must offer farmers higher value than informal distributors in order to compete for farmer land and labor. In exchange, they provide farmers with: (1) top quality seeds and farm inputs, (2) training on farming best-practices, (3) access to capital for financing the planting season, and (4) higher prices for their produce. The result is higher earnings and less waste as more farmer products are sold more efficiently into larger, high-value markets.
ShambaIO will greatly increase the number of farmers connected to high-value markets, by boosting the effectiveness of rural extension agents and volunteer community leaders. Scaling distributed outgrower programs to tens (or hundreds) of thousands of farmers is incredibly operationally complex. Current database-centered tools fall short because they were designed for data collection for HQ, rather than supporting decision-making in the field. ShambaIO will dramatically boost the efficacy of farmer extension agents by helping them understand the most effective action they can take every day, thereby reaching more farmers, more efficiently, with lower overheads. By connecting more farmers with high-value organizations, the industry can grow together, and farmers can thrive.
3. How does ShambaIO reduce food waste? We see two key drivers behind food waste: seasonal surplus and inefficient coordination. As mentioned, by helping to expand the market reach of farmers’ products through formal wholesalers, ShambaIO will help alleviate the seasonal local competition that drives waste, as national/global retail buyers absorb the extra supply. With regards to coordination, ShambaIO helps farmers work with rural extension agents to forecast yields and arrange seasonal calendars for pick-up, so farmers can make informed decisions about what/how much to plant and when to harvest.
4. How is ShambaIO meaningfully differentiated from other smallholder management systems? While other tools for smallholder farmer management exist, no platform has emerged as the clear market leader. Most importantly, the penetration of these tools relative to the vast number of farmers who could benefit from connections with high-value markets, and increasing number of agricultural organizations seeking to scale their outgrower programs is miniscule.
Most of the agricultural organizations we spoke with had at one point purchased or demoed other tools (Farmforce, TaroWorks, CommCare, etc), yet each one of these organizations were seeking an alternative solution to better meet their needs, and were eager to join our pilot. We can point to a number of other players in the space that are trying to develop some common features to what we’ve got our sights set on… but not one of those players received rave reviews from the well-respected enterprises we spoke with. The evidence suggests that, while there is some “competition,” none of them are hitting the mark.
Why? Our research has uncovered a serious, pervasive need for improvement upon current solutions.
While we heard some key requests for new features, there was one fundamental element lacking from current tools: human-centered design. The most critical users of these systems are not the office-based managers, but the frontline field extension agents, who, whether employed by the organization or volunteer ambassadors, are themselves members of the farming communities we wish to serve.
We repeatedly heard organizations share human-level problems that were keeping these survey-centered tools from functioning as expected. While our feature list may share commonalities with other products, we intend to use design thinking to solve the latent human needs that are challenged by what these organizations experience as “database-centered design.”
(1) Bottoms-up planning. A huge amount of farmer and community information (needs, concerns, progress, success) is stored in the minds of rural agents rather than the office. Current tools are too prescriptive, and not flexible enough to help field staff translate high-level goals into their day-to-day interactions with farmers.
(2) Illiteracy. Many extension agents (especially in the poorest locations) struggle with literacy, making text-heavy tools with clunky user interfaces overwhelming for many individuals who are using smartphones and tablets for the first time. These organizations liked our clean UI in the prototype, and we intend to hold simplicity and iconography as a core design principle for mobile tool development.
(3) Checks & balances. The most common reason we heard for why organizations abandon current tools is the emergence of inconsistencies between the reality in the field and the data in the database. Rural agents need tools for preventing misidentification, flagging errant data, and verifying updates to the system. This solution needs to be solved not from the perspective of a database engineer, but from the perspective of the agents and volunteers who will actually use these tools.
We have updated the initial prototype mockups to reflect the key learnings we’ve gotten from prototype testing over the last month. Stay tuned, and let us know in the meanwhile if there are any additional questions or ideas you have for us. One of the reasons we value the IDEO Amplify most is the collaborative, creative, and generative spirit we have encountered from the community.