What it Takes to Develop and Manage a Digitally-enabled Field Force

Sep 8, 2020 | All, Data & Tech Acceleration, Digital Financial Services, Distribution Channel Logistics

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In 2015, Mercy Corps launched the AgriFin Accelerate (AFA) Programme; a six-year, $24 million project funded by the Mastercard Foundation. AgriFin Accelerate is addressing the inclusion gap for smallholder farmers (SHF) who lack access to affordable, accessible, demand-driven financial products and services that drive higher productivity and income for farmers. Over the past two years, several AgriFin partners have developed digital platforms to encompass complex bundles of services, including financial services, access to inputs, markets, new services, and learning. Through multiple engagements and partnerships, AgriFin has been able to recognize several success determinants for the development and management of field forces that are digitally enabled at critical points. 


More than 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide play a pivotal role in food production, accounting for 80% of production in the global south. Historically, it has been difficult for organisations to get information, products or services to or from smallholder farmers, compounding existing infrastructural problems such as access to inputs, financing, training and access to markets. However, the increase in available and affordable digital tools including mobile technology, remote-sensing data, climate smart-technology and data management tools, represent an opportunity to revolutionize the sector’s modus operandi.  

Mirroring digitalisation trends, the way that organisations engage with smallholder farmers has evolved – from manual data collection and service delivery, using highly skills agronomists in the field – to fully digital models where services are deployed solely through mobile devices. Given the complexity of services, organisations are understanding that a blended model is required, and investing in digitally enables rural field forces to enhance their service provision with a combination of human interaction and digital tools.

The onset of COVID-19 has amplified their value and relevance. The agriculture sector has been significantly affected by COVID-19 lockdowns with disruptions to regional supply chains for fertilizers, quality seeds, pesticides on the one hand, and access to markets on the other. For organizations that work closely with smallholder farmers, the crisis has severed direct access thus amplifying the need for agent touchpoints and digital tools for:

The challenge now facing agricultural organizations is how best to leverage the power of digital tools, blended with human touchpoints in a way that optimizes delivery and cost. The 10 guiding principles below are synthesized from previous AgriFin engagements, partnerships, extensive human-centered design (HCD) research, expert interviews, and a benchmark of best practice across 10-15 organizations with field forces within sub-Saharan African and Asia. They provide guiding principles for the development and management of a successful, digitally-enabled agricultural field force:


Women make strong digital agents and evidence shows that their deliberate inclusion directly correlates to higher rates of female farmer recruitment. However, focused considerations and deliberate interventions need to be made to address gender-specific barriers. Each organisation reviewed in the best practice assessment made unique interventions with positive implications for both the number of women agents and farmers. An organisation had success when ensuring agent recruitment drives were gender sensitive. These included the use of recruitment quotas and strategic advertisement placement to ensure visibility to all genders. In addition, organizations who monitored their agent networks were able to identify factors that influenced performance and attrition including mobility and contextual gender roles and perceptions. Ultimately, for organizations to progress their gender ambitions, they must be intentional about integrating women and a gender perspective into their digital agent model.


Smallholder farmers are facing an ever-changing world and continuously shifting needs, augmented by the unique challenges presented by COVID-19. Hopes and expectations for the digitalization of agriculture are high. As organizations evolve their delivery models to meet the increasingly digital landscape, it is critical that they remain introspective and optimize both digital tools and human touch points to ensure that they are meeting the needs of smallholders most adeptly.


Leesa Shrader | Director, AgriFin Accelerate

Elena Holtkotte |Strategic Learning & Communications Lead, AgriFin Accelerate

Emmanuel Makau | Technology Data Decision Manager, AgriFin Accelerate

Naoko Koyama-Blanc | Dalberg Advisors

Charlie Habershon | Dalberg Advisors

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