'Want to help small farmers with digital services? Then look closely at the local context'

André Jellema, program manager at AUXFIN.

The Netherlands invested in the Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) programme for ten years. In this series, key players look back and look to the future. André Jellema is programme manager at the social enterprise AUXFIN: 'How do you get valuable information and applications to local communities in the absence of a stable internet?'

AUXFIN describes itself as a 'social enterprise'. What does this entail?

'We are basically a software company. A company makes a profit, but making a profit is not our main goal. Our primary goal is to achieve sustainable impact through financial and social inclusiveness for all. So also for vulnerable groups, such as refugees, the low-literate and in the case of G4AW: smallholder food producers in Burundi, a small country in central Africa.'

Your project was called GAP4A: Good Agricultural Practices for All. What was the idea?

'Burundi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Most farmers have limited access to agricultural products. And if they can get it at all, they often don't know exactly what to do with it. Farmers can select and procure agricultural products via AgriCoach. We receive a small percentage commission. With these revenues the extension services are provided. In this way we can provide our AgriCoach advisory services for free.’

What do the extension services entail?

'We have developed an application called the AgriCoach. This app, which is based on satellite data and other geo-information, tells for each specific location which crops are best to grow, when to sow, fertilise, and harvest.'

©Auxfin Burundi/GAP4A partnership.
For an app, you need internet. Do farmers in Burundi have this?

'That was perhaps the biggest challenge. We started with an online application. That turned out to be too optimistic: reliable internet is not available everywhere in Burundi. Since then, the 'digital highway' has been part of our plans. We make sure we get the right information in the right place, online if possible, offline if necessary. In this, our G50 approach plays an important role.'

What does the G50 approach entail?

'G50 is a group of up to 50 households who consult and help each other. The method ties in with local customs: people have lived in small communities for centuries. We provide the groups with a tablet and solar panels for electricity. Through one tablet, we can provide up to 50 families with valuable information this way. The group leaders make sure services and information are accessible to all members, including those who cannot read and write. They are supported by key activators: people who also update the tablets and transport data and goods.'

Could smallholder farmers in Burundi use the app right away?

'Satellite data form the basis of the application. Among other things, they provide climate information and a weather forecast. We are used to working with such data, for them it is abracadabra. Many people in Burundi cannot read and write. That is why we use simple visualisations. The user sees a screen with a number of buttons and instruction videos. Those videos show which crop is best to plant where, when to fertilise and how to do it.'

©Auxfin Burundi/GAP4A partnership.
Did the Agricoach help local people in Burundi get better harvests?

'We measured the impact AgriCoach has had. There were farmers who harvested thirty percent more maize, fifty percent more potatoes and even twice as many beans. When we saw that we could bring valuable information to people and that they could work with it, we continued to develop the app. Besides information on agriculture, there are now digital coaches for finance, nutrition, health, sex education, and fish farming.'

Your reporting showed that GAP4A even led to a new occupation in Burundi?

'We discovered that only one weather station could be found in the whole of Burundi. Then we bought more than four hundred rain gauges and installed them locally to validate the weather forecast. People who reported daily rainfall were called rain masters. Crowd sourcing the rainfall also led to greater involvement of locals. We saw that people started understanding our weather reports better.'

The key question is: will small food producers also want to pay for the information and services you have developed in the long term?

'It is not easy to get this done. Individual farmers often don't have the money or the knowledge or they lack both. And sometimes they think information is free. But of course it is not. We have a combined service. On the one hand, we get commission from companies that supply products. On the other hand, we earn a small amount from the end user's licence.'

How did this project change your views on financial inclusion?

'From GAP4A, we learnt that financial inclusion cannot exist without social inclusion. It all starts with getting the right information to the right people. What do you need? When? How do you get it? How do you finance it? We need to unlock that information in a way that suits the local situation and the people who need to work with it. With the rollout of the G50 methodology, existing social structures between villagers have slowly been strengthened and the G50 groups are starting to undertake more and more together.'

How will the story of GAP4A continue now that G4AW has stopped?

'The AgriCoach is working and continues to be expanded. In 2024, we will launch the application in Burkina Faso and Uganda. I am optimistic about the future.'