The Art of Behavior Change

Nov 4, 2016 | All, Digital Financial Services, Farmer Capability & Smart Farming

“We have always done it this way,” is the answer we received from a young poultry farmer in Athi River, a small town outside Kenya’s capital Nairobi when we asked her why her chicken coop was a particular height. Further discussion around farming methods revealed she was willing to change her farming practices if she had access to reliable and convenient sources of information. This statement resonates with many of the smallholder farmers we speak to across Kenya. The information gap between theoretically sound agricultural methods and the actual farming practices employed still exists across sub-Saharan Africa.

In a bid to bridge this gap, many agricultural service providers have turned to technology to provide viable solutions. Currently, over 140 agri-focused mobile phone applications are available in the Kenyan market. Out of these, less than 15 have an active user-base of more than 10,000 farmers, representing a paltry 0.006% of the total farming population in a country with a smartphone penetration rate of nearly 14% for men and 11% for women, according to AFA’s new baseline study of 2016, and where Agriculture makes up 25% of the overall GDP.

The low uptake of agri-focused mobile phone apps disputes the notion that having the smartest technology or the most sophisticated platforms will automatically drive usage and adoption by end-users. Clearly, there is a missing ingredient to driving engagement between technology platforms and the end user.

That missing ingredient, technology’s equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, is Capability Building (for both providers and farmers).

We ask Erica Bliss, Business Development Program Manager for Eastern and Southern Africa at Syngenta, a series of questions to find out what is driving the success of its capacity building initiative.

Tell us about the situation that led you to think about incorporating farmer capability in your program?

Farmer training has always been at the core of our business. In much of the world, we can train and support individual growers face-to-face and economics work. To drive growth in Africa, we must find a cost-effective way to reach widely dispersed smallholder farmers who make up much of the potential customer base. This led us to test both SMS and video-based training tools that have the potential to greatly amplify our reach at a scalable price point.

Briefly describe your farmer capability initiative.

Syngenta’s business development team runs an incubator that tests new business models that could grow our smallholder business and drive increased income for farmers. We are testing a wide range of interventions where we pilot, collect data and refine our approach to determine which models are successful and scalable.

Out of the 5 pilots we ran in Kenya last year, our SMS based training tool stood out with the most surprisingly positive results. Launched in April 2015 and hosted by Arifu (an education technology company based in Kenya), the platform has full training content on everything from land preparation to harvesting across four main crops: maize, potato, tomato, and cabbage – in both Swahili and English. The training is free for farmers and works on any phone in Kenya (feature or smartphone). We created multiple versions of the content in the first season to test which behavioral nudges lead to greater engagement and the adoption of good agricultural practices. We successfully drove farmers to Arifu’s learning platform through careful, low-cost investment in radio.

What models of delivery for farmer capability did you test? Which ones proved to be successful and why?

We tested in-person training by NGOs, SMS, and video-based delivery. Throughout the season, we sent enumerators out to see how much of the information actually went into practice. We literally had teams of people measuring the spacing of potato seeds to see if farmers followed our training instructions.

While all had an impact, the SMS training outperformed the others. I see three main reasons:

  • We let the farmer drive. Farmers are able to select exactly which information they want at the time they need it – basically “on-demand training.” We do not just send tips that “experts” think will be useful. A farmer can learn all the information in one go, or she or he can learn according to the season and review information while on the farm.
  • We integrate behavioral nudges. These are incredibly powerful in driving behavior change for all humans, including smallholder farmers. We tested many; here are some of the results:
    1. A narrative storyline (John planted certified potato seeds and doubled his yield vs. plant certified potato seeds and double your yield) led to 68% increase in usage.
    2. Social norming (learn how Syngenta is helping farmers like you double their produce vs. learn how Syngenta can help double your produce) led to 50% increase in usage.
  • We make it free. In today’s world, the information should be free and companies must find other sustainable business models as a way of cross-subsidizing the service. Syngenta integrates product information into the training, which drives sales making this a long-term sustainable option.

What did you look for in the partners that participated in the study? What led to the partnership with Arifu?

Arifu, our technology partner, has a unique product and a data-driven approach that aligns well with our business. It is a scalable technology that works on basic, feature, and smartphones have attracted many new content partners that will make the training more engaging and robust for users. As one of the first companies to create useful ag content for the platform, we were able to have a hand in developing the product to meet our needs, and we are working together to build in features that improve user experience as we grow.

What impact have you seen so far?

We are pleased with results from our first year and are continuing to track the impact over time to understand the reach, the resilience of behavior change, impact on farmer yields and incomes, interest in the training material, and loyalty to our products:

  • In the first season (April – July 2015): The average farmer increased net income by $187 per acre (28%).
  • So far in season 2 (August – today): we have 40,000 active users on the platform with an average of 26 outgoing messages “pulled” per user. 80% of the farmers who took the training in season 1 also used the training in season 2 when we added new crops.
  • 75% of farmers had never met someone from an input company and 60% had never been to any agricultural training (NGO, government, or private sector). We are able to reach a completely underserved demographic that is hungry for information.

Do you think that digital interventions can work alone or should be complemented or supported by other forms of traditional interventions? Which other programs have you put in place to support the Arifu learning platform?

Digital interventions are powerful but won’t solve all the barriers to keeping farmers from increasing yields and profit. Physical availability of inputs and links to better produce buyers are issues farmers face across Africa and still require in-person support – although this will likely change over the coming years. We have a number of pilots addressing entire value chains where technology is one piece of the larger puzzle of farmer engagement.

What does the success of the program look to you? What can you do better?

We look for a scale with a continued positive impact on the farmers and our business. We just started and are still in the tens of thousands of users. We have ambitions to reach millions of farmers. This requires strategic partnerships with players across the value chains, public, private, NGOs – who have similar goals.

We need to get better at collecting and using data, enabling us to provide the right offering to farmers. Our arsenal of extension tools is growing every day as we investigate Whatsapp integration, audio in addition to the video, SMS, written, and in-person methods. Finding the proper channels to distribute these tools is very important in driving scale.

What are the three hard-to-spot pitfalls that are critical to avoid when thinking about farmer capability programs?

  • Trying to implement sleek European or American technology because you have a good tool available (tablets with lots of functionality, apps with flashy videos). Finding fit-for-purpose solutions that meet customer needs should always be the focus – there are tons of great developers and designers here in Africa who are generally much better at creating solutions that will be widely adopted.
  • Companies think that remote farmers do not present a viable business opportunity. We are investing in agricultural areas that have traditionally had no private-sector contacts. These farmers are extremely grateful and in many cases, ready to invest in better production if supplied with knowledge and products.
  • All training are not equally valuable. I have witnessed a wide variety of training methods from board games to dramatizations to field days to classroom blackboard sessions. For all approaches, data collection and analytics are essential to improving our approaches in this industry and figuring out what leads to behavior change.

Looking out 3 to 5 years, beyond the obvious trends, what do you think would be the next big change in the agriculture space?

  • I believe big data will drive a host of new products and services targeting emerging farmers in the future. Farmers who have never had access to agricultural loans will have products tailored to the specific crops they grow. Farmer credit profiles will be tracked through both historical transactions and behavioral data that help companies calculate the creditworthiness of individuals. Thousands of retailers will be on these platforms, allowing banks to pay for inputs on credit (through any retailer near the farmer) instead of disbursing and collecting cash, thereby reducing risk for all involved.
  • Leveraging social media to find the influencers in smallholder farming communities and using those individuals to drive change will also be big.
  • Adopting sustainable climate-smart practices will increasingly be important in driving success. Farmers who use high-yielding hardy seeds, suitable crop protection, and timely information are the ones who will succeed. Syngenta through its global Good Growth Plan initiative ( is committed to helping them do that.
  • Vegetable seeds delivered directly to smallholder farmers via drones!

Angelah Madara, the Farmer Capability Lab Manager, Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate Program.