Design for the emerging rural economy

According to the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), 3 billion people in developing countries live in rural areas. Agriculture is the main source of income for 86% of this population. Within this farming community, smallholder farmers make up the bulk of farmers (for more stats see the FAO rural economy fact sheet). Arguably, they have contributed substantially to the growth that many developing countries have experienced over the recent few years, not unlike SME’s being the motor behind Western economies. Smallholder farmers are thus an important group for working together with in our global ambitions of creating social and economic development (as demonstrated by the UN initiative of proclaiming 2014 to be the year of the family farm).

One of the leading strategies in developing smallholder farmers is providing them with knowledge and information on agricultural practices. The idea is that this will improve practices, make production more sustainable, and improve operations of the market. Given the increase in dissemination of (mobile) technology communication devices, there also appears to be a huge potential for reaching scale with ICT’s in outreach of these information and knowledge dissemination approaches.    

Smallholder farmers
Smallholder farmers by Jeroen Meijer from JAM visueeldenken

Despite the significance of the group of smallholders and the opportunity at hand, there is still a lot we are yet to understand about them. The majority of their lives take place in informal economic settings, where local activities and rules apply that simply do not light up on the formal business development radar. There is no real understanding available on their everyday lives and priorities. For instance the chocolate multinational considers the cocoa farmer, simply because she has a cocoa tree and supplies cocoa to the world market. But this farmer herself might see things differently:

I side-sell some of the milk to keep my husband from spending the earnings on anything other than our kids’ school fees,

I need to learn from a cousin about rearing rabbits to serve the growing number of road side dining stalls opening up in town, which are willing to extend me a loan to start operations,

I’m skipping dinner tonight to save up for airtime so I can call that trader which has recently been asking specifically for that variety of  mangos. It will save me the hassle of getting produce transported on market day and getting a raw deal in any case.

There is thus a huge gap in understanding, aggravated by the sheer number of people we’re talking about, and we have little basis to relate. As there is no substitute to fill this lack in understanding, smallholder farmers are oftentimes unfittingly lumped together in service and development program designs. There is no basis for targeting innovations to specific groups, nor obtaining specific feedback about what works for whom, and what doesn’t. The result can only be that a lot of the available information and knowledge doesn’t arrive or ‘stick’. A majority of smallholder farmers is likely to be underserved and under-utilised in their capacities to contribute to economic and social development.

We need to drastically enhance and update our understanding, if we intend to reach out to the smallholder farmer. And we should start with the basics such as:

  • Different mental models that farmers use for managing and operating their farms, which would reveal particular workflows and basic farm decision making foundations
  • Basic technology usage patterns that would reveal insights on user experience design requirements
  • Rules and systems that apply to the informal economy context, as well as business models that are currently successfully serving farmers.
  • The role of community and networks, and their social conventions and taboos, which make up the existing ecosystem in which the farmer organizes her life.
  • Lastly and most importantly, we need to understand farmers’ aspirations, and how to appeal to those aspirations, to provide an adequate basis of relation.

A proposition
It is evident that such research needs to be done, but it shouldn’t be done for research’s sake. Rather, understanding needs to be turned into actionable insights. What if we could develop processes, tools, and personas which would aid in segmenting farmers in a specific context for targeting innovations? Support materials, which would capacitate companies, CSR initiatives, and dedicated organizations working with smallholder farmers to design and build for their specific purposes in agricultural product and service development.

Tools and processes for segmentation
Process and tools for achieving segmentation by Jeroen Meijer from JAM visueeldenken

The aim would not so much be to directly provide solutions, but more so to put the design process and tools into the hands of the people who are most closely related to the problems at hand. On top of that there would be a need for continuous adaptation, tailoring, and distribution of such a resource to different and changing contexts, as developing country economies are in continuous growth flux.

Boldly stating, I say that such a resource would need to be developed and made available in the form of an organisation with a public purpose of overcoming our current common barriers to purposeful marketing to smallholder farmers. This would be a social venture, which would maintain itself by publically providing, tools, processes, and basic insights to customers. Furthermore this organisation could help out in tailoring to specific business and service development interests, based on agricultural practices, but fanning out into other areas like finance, insurance, farming input sales, sourcing practices, extension services, agribusiness sourcing, etc. To give the vision a name, I have dubbed this organization Ardhi, which is a holistic term in Swahili signifying soil, ground, or suitable (farm)land.

The Farmer
Insight and understanding of the farmer by Jeroen Meijer from JAM visueeldenken

Further idea development
Now I do warn that there is no clear fix for this initiative. We have the basic design tools and technology resources available, but they need to be tailored and refined towards a new market setting through the only way possible: practical experimentation and learning. It will thus be a journey, one which I would like to invite you on to as well.

I am part of a dedicated consortium, which is ready to start this research journey by looking into the space of information and knowledge exchange relating to agricultural practices. Over the past year, we have been enabled through seed funding to conduct a feasibility study in Kenya and India for our research, and compile a research plan (several insights previously published under the VCD category on this blog). We combine the skills of design, technology and agriculture for emerging markets. Leading this consortium are:

Bart Doorneweert, agriculture researcher at Wageningen University
Syamant Sandhir, tech specialist at Futurescape
Ric Edinberg, design researcher at Insitum

Together, we would like to hear from you about your interest for our initiative. Specifically we are looking for people and organizations that can help us on our innovation journey through either:

  • Field work collaboration- Involve us in projects in the early scoping and design stage
  • Testing research process and tool prototypes, and applying preliminary insights- Private sector and NGO parties collaborating with private sector who are interested to obtain and apply early insights and actively co-create methods and materials with us.
  • Providing broad-based funding support for deep-dive research to develop materials and insights, and seek the limits of their application. – Funding organizations that support the idea of strengthening the ecosystem of service and product development for smallholder farmers.

If you are interested to be involved, then do make yourself heard by dropping us a bit on your background and interests here. We look forward to hearing from you, and hopefully engaging with you in the near future! Do keep track with the progress of our journey under the Ardhi category of posts that will come.

The uncertainty depositaries

Most people would consider uncertainty a bad thing. You don’t know what will happen, you can’t control for the outcomes you would prefer. I’m not talking risk here, which can technically be insured against. I’m talking uncertainty, where there is no objective way to determine what the future state of things will be; no means to end framework by which to go.

However, not all people experience uncertainty in the same way. There is a great theory developed by the economist Frank H. Knight about uncertainty and entrepreneurship. Knight claims entrepreneurs have lower thresholds to apply their subjective decision making under highly uncertain circumstances. Whether positive outcomes are ascribable to competent judgment or sheer luck, is not really discernable, but at least it’s important to know that there are people who aren’t afraid to apply their own judgment to make decisions under deeply uncertain circumstances (with all the consequences of being wrong, and pretty much alone in your beliefs at many points).

Now consider two practical examples of this. First one is about someone whom we all know, Steve Jobs. Now at the time of developing the first iMac and the iPod, Jobs made a judgment call on the future state of the internet, where he envisioned that the ordinary consumer would have wide spread access, and could ship and receive much larger bundles of data. This was in a time that competitors will still banking on diskette drives… Job’s judgment resulted in the built-in modem and LAN port on the iMac, as well as the online distribution model for the  iTunes store that fed your iPod. The difference it made for Apple is nicely explained in this quote from this Forbes article:

The iPod took off after earlier MP3 players hadn’t not only because of its simplicity and ease of use but also because Jobs waited until broadband technologies were ready to support the music data transfers it would rely on.  

Another such example of uncertainty can be found in the informal economy, which is by definition a very uncertain operating environment. This one was discovered by Niti Bhan during field work in Kenya. She found somebody that had wired their house completely, without having access, nor guarantee of access to the grid: “it would come” was the home owner’s prediction.

Wired house before the grid came

Wired house before the grid was even available in the area (Photo credit: Niti Bhan)

This very much triggers my thoughts. Both examples are from widely different environments, but show the same type of judgment call about a very uncertain outcome. Could we be looking at the same thing here? Would that mean that we could thus better understand entrepreneurship and people who live in the operating environment of the informal economy, by relating the effect of uncertainty to decision making?

The only article which comes remotely close to this question, is a psychology experiment set up by Chip Heath, and Amos Tversky. A gem of an article, but very little used since publication, so I’ve learned by Chip himself. The article indicates that competence and aspiration seem to lower people’s thresholds to actively engage and invest, under conditions of uncertainty.

Would it be worthwhile to define personas on such basis? To inform accelerator programs on the people they’re funding? To engage with specific farmers in development programs in the informal economies in developing countries? To find the early adopters of the internet in emerging markets? I’d love to hear your thoughts!