Digitizing Agriculture Value-chains: B2B product suit for a Telco

Small-holder farmers are an essential part of value chain, yet they often find themselves getting a fraction of the value created.

How might we digitize the last-mile of agriculture value-chains providing clear value proposition to agribusinesses around their needs for procurement traceability, farmer relationship management, payments digitization and analytics, as well as the needs of small-holder farmers?

  • Clients: Telenor, Jazz (Vimplecom), GSM Alliance, Karandaaz Pakistan
  • Services: Design Research, Service Design, Design Sprint
  • My Role: Lead Service Designer (along with UX Lead and 3 associate designers)

About the Challenge

Paper based records of corn lab testing at agribusiness factory

Helping Small Holder Farmers get Financial Inclusion

GSM Association (GSMA) represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide. It runs a Mobile for Development program (AgriTech Programme) which focuses on the advancements in the agriculture sector through mobile. Its mission is to advance the productivity and profitability of smallholder farmers and the agricultural industry at large through scalable and commercial mobile services. 

GSMA wanted to identify opportunities for agribusiness digitization in Pakistan, with a focus, at a minimum, on three base use cases – farmer registrations, digital procurement records, and digital payments being made directly to farmers (not via middlemen) from agribusinesses. Just like other developing countries, the rural finance gap in Pakistan has been huge. With a massive share of 1/5th in Pakistan’s GDP, the agricultural sector of Pakistan is a source of income to 6.6 million farm households. Despite all of this, the rural finance gap in Pakistan’s agricultural sector is huge. Smallholder farmers are mostly out of the formal financial sector and do not have any credit history for securing credit.

The digitization of agricultural value chains is an emerging opportunity for mobile network operators (MNOs) to drive rural growth through enterprise solutions tailored to agribusinesses. Moving beyond the initial provision of agricultural value-added services (VAS) or bulk payments, holistic enterprise solutions might include a combination of digital payments, digital records and farmer profiles, content and track and trace services. GSMA, through its mAgri program (supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), sponsored this design research for mobile network operators Telenor and Jazz to explore opportunities for digitization of agribusiness value chains. 

Approach

Selecting the right value-chains

Before design research, it was important to identify key value chains that were suitable for the initial value proposition and adoption. I led this activity in collaboration with the client stakeholders and developed a criteria including seasonality, fragmentation of value-chain, farmer land sizing and potential for small-ticket payments. We shortlisted dairy, grains (corn + rice), and citrus fruits (kinnow) for this design research.

Research Hypotheses

We developed key hypotheses about the value-chain and the pain-points of main personas related to the current procurement process. These hypotheses informed our research tools for each persona we had to interview.

I worked with an interaction designer to develop mockups to envision digital interfaces (mobile application as well as sms based menus for feature phone uses) for the procurement processes of the agribusiness. Once the preparation was done, we embarked on 2 weeks long research across multiple cities in different regions.

Field Research

During our field research, we traveled for more than 2,000 km across the largest province of Pakistan interviewing key stakeholders in the agriculture value chain including agribusiness management, procurement staff, middle-men, and smallholder farmers (total of 45 interviews).

Our focus was to understand the crop cycles, farmer’s journey from the crop planning all the way to sale and receipt of money for their produce. We captured details about how various market agents operate in value chain and mapped out the flow of money throughout the crop cycles. I worked with the team to conduct quick synthesis sessions after these interviews to organize key learnings and insights.

What we learnt?

For us it is a constant struggle across the board. Finding quality inputs is challenging and we are dependent on the agent’s choice as he finances them. At the time of harvest, there is a market glut and we get extremely low rates for our produce as we don’t have the resources to securely store the crops or transport them to far off markets which may be offering a better rate. This endless cycle of debt and dependence never ends.

― Rice Farmer

My field staff says (on the phone) that I am in the field, but where is he on the field? We have a difficult time tracking workers across acres of orchards. Similarly, it is difficult to track if they have applied all the inputs provided to them by the factory for the orchard – this is critical for our export quality and licensing.

― Citrus Agribusiness Owner

It was a sad journey to learn about the lives of these small-holder farmers and their financial troubles and compere them with the challenge of a skewed marketplace in favour of the aggregators and middle-men

Key Findings

1

Farmer registration was done through paper based process which was time consuming and difficult to track

2

Dairy farmers prefer cash payments on daily basis. Currently, farmers have to wait a period of 7 to 10 days to receive payments.

3

Staff spend too much time on manual entry and tracking of sales and procurement data in absence of digital reporting, tracking or measurement system

4

Advisory services are liked by farmers and derive loyalty, but have high costs associated with them.

Small-holder farmers are the most in the need of financial inclusion, yet they get left out of the financial system at the mercy of the loan sharks and middle-men heaped in piles of debts for years.

Intense ideation during the jams
Field synthesis after interviews

Stakeholder maps updated after research
Clearly identified opportunity areas across value-chains

Synthesis is an art and a science. The secret recipe for a successful product is the rigorous synthesis from research to validated concepts.”

Synthesis & Ideation

Design Sprint

I led a week long Design Sprint after the field research working with the client product leads, my team and user experience designers to map out the user personas and journeys, service blueprints, identify key problems areas and opportunities along the course of the procurement process of each value chain. 

We mapped out these blueprints for the three value chains studied and worked together to identify common opportunities for each value chain. 

After thorough analysis and ideation jams with client team members and my team, we co-create solutions with clear value-proposition for the stakeholders across the value-chain. We invited the senior leadership and key stakeholders from client side in key sessions to explore deeper questions around business model and product offering.

Taking concepts out of the board rooms into the field for a test drive

I worked with the interaction designers to develop prototypes for the interfaces and developed a plan to test out these products with the end-users (total of 20 user-testing sessions). These user-tests and service trials (image with biometric reader and phone) presented us valuable insights and validated some hypotheses while disproving others. We incorporated the feedback in our recommendations for the product for the client.

Results

The synthesis and findings of this research resulted in a finalized set of opportunity areas that we believed the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) should focus on. These included direct and digitized payments, digitized data entry, digitized weigh-bridge data, access to farmer profiles, reduced pilferage, and data analytics along with digital advisory services. The product teams incorporated these findings into their roadmap and released the MVP for validation after a few months of development.

”Since the banks are very far, it takes a lot of time to get there. This system is better, as I don’t know how to fill out the cheque which causes me a lot of hassle. The retailer (mobile money agent) shops are easily accessible in our area.”

Dairy Farmer

“A lot of companies have tried to sell us their technology products. Your offering is far more holistic and meets our operational, business and compliance needs” 

Head of Procurement, Dairy Agribusiness

2 Agribusinesses signed up for MVP

Deliverables for the project

We delivered the synthesis report for executive storytelling and presentations for the Telco product teams and GSM Alliance. The MVP features and user-requirements were captured in a detailed requirements document for the product teams. My team also conducted usability testing and heuristic evaluations of the vendor products based on field testing results.

I also delivered an evaluation of the technology vendors who provided off-the shelf SaaS products in line with the requirements of the product. One Telco opted to partner up with a startup and launch their product for early market trials while the other Telco chose to develop their existing product platform to build a new offering for Agribusinesses.

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