Connected Farmer: The ‘Sourdough Starter’ in farming

Casper Strydom  |  17 April 2017

When preparing for an interview with Wynand Malan – Business Developer, Agriculture and product owner of Connected Farmer at Mezzanine – one expects to have a conversation of a highly technical nature, probably entwined with software-related jargon. Starting off with the baking of sourdough bread and the important role that the sourdough starter plays in the process, comes somewhat as a surprise.

Things, however, fall into place when Malan uses the analogy of the sourdough starter and bread to explain the role that Connected Farmer plays in the farming activities of smallholder farmers in the African context. In the same way as sourdough starter on its own has no nourishing value, so is software on its own not of any worth. But when software such as Connected Farmer is kneaded into the everyday operations of agribusiness in the same way as the sourdough starter becomes part of the dough to bake the bread, only then does it become useful for its users and does it change from mere software to an efficient management instrument.

“Connected Farmer is an easy-to-use mobile phone-based solution that enables enterprises in the agribusiness to interact and transact with the smallholder farmers from whom they buy produce,” says Malan. “Farmers register as suppliers and enter into a contract with a business in the agri-industry which, in return, records crop production at the delivery point and communicates volume, quality and price to the farmers via SMS. If needed, the farmer can now purchase goods from participating outlets in the agri value chain on a loan account, based on the available credit in his or her Connected Farmer account. Monthly payment of dairy farmers, for example, is done via the Connected Farmer Dairy Management Solution using mobile phone technology. In this way Connected Farmer acts as an enabler in the agribusiness/smallholder farmer environment and reduces the risk involved in trading with smallholder farmers in the traditional way.

Malan recently returned from a field visit to Kenya where Connected Farmer is used in the dairy industry and in transactions relating to the production of seasonal products. “I’m very happy with the success achieved with the product,” he says. But when he explains the realities of farming in these remote parts of Kenya, then the transformation that Connected Farmer has brought about, becomes even more remarkable.

According to Malan these smallholder farmers’ livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming on farms of 5 acres or less, mostly in remote and often poorly accessible regions. Delivery to the market is done by bicycles as the farmers’ only means of transport. To produce and harvest seasonal products already is hard work; to improve the yield requires even more effort. Smallholder coffee bean producers, for example, harvest on average only 4 kg of beans per annum while a figure of between 10-30 kg per annum could be attainable. But to do so, farmers need information and education on weed and pest control, as well the fertilization of their crops.

Connected Farmer is making a major difference in the agricultural landscape in Kenya. “Almost all farmers have mobile phones and for our clients procuring macadamia nuts, for example, Connected Farmer has become the primary means of doing business with them,” says Malan. He goes on to explain that M-Pesa – a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service – is widely accepted in Kenya and forms the basis for payment via Connected Farmer for produce that these farmers have delivered.

Connected Farmer replaced the earlier cumbersome paper-intensive way of recording transactions and dispensed with the need to transact in hard cash. It also enables the agri-industry to educate and give guidance to farmers on farming issues via SMS. This makes high-touch agribusiness – a business model characterised by a close relationship with customers or clients – in terms of interaction with the farmers, transactions and data management, a reality.

But the true value of Malan’s field visit in Kenya was not in experiencing the success that Connected Farmer has brought about, but actually to position him to further improve the product. “Such a visit is to a large extent a reality check,” says Malan. “By speaking to the users, I became deeply aware of their further needs. It gave me a perspective on where our product development priorities should lie and it enabled me to set the wheels in motion to, without delay, attend to the priorities that mattered most.”

And looking at the bigger picture, Malan’s statement merely substantiates why Mezzanine as a company is so successful in its field. It has the vision, know-how and purpose to develop and deliver innovative mobile-enabled business solutions as a managed service for a mobile-first world such as the African continent. It, furthermore, has a reputation of being a solution enabler that works closely with its clients and partners in creating productive societies.

And speaking of partners, Malan has the highest respect for the Mezzanine East African team, Mezzanine’s associate business based in Nairobi. “The experience, support and service dedication that they bring to the agri-industry contribute largely to Mezzanine’s overall success in that country,” says Malan. And sounding like a seasoned agri-industry procurement official, he adds: “This team is worth more than their weight in honey coated macadamia nuts. Spending time with them in person was priceless!”

And this is where Mezzanine’s true differentiation lies – it’s become customary for the likes of Malan and colleagues to go out to personally get to know the users of its products, their circumstances and their requirements, and to directly respond to their needs.

And an understanding of this elevates Malan’s analogy of the sourdough starter and bread from a product to a corporate level. It illustrates the purpose of Mezzanine as a company to be an enabler that makes things better. And the best part of this role as enabler is that it offers the gratification of knowing that the company is making a difference where it really matters, whether in the efficiency of enterprises in the agribusiness in Kenya, or in the lives of those who need it most – the smallholder farmer and his family whose livelihood depends on subsistence farming in that country.

It’s like enjoying freshly baked sourdough bread, but enjoying it together with all of those who were involved in the baking process!