RFS eSwatini pilots SMS-based messaging system to improve communication with farmers

Given the promise and huge expansion in use of mobile phone technology to improve communication in the agricultural sector, the RFS eSwatini project has been piloting the use of an SMS-based messaging system linked to the national Agricultural Market and Information System (AMIS).

 eSwatini has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in sub-Saharan Africa. With estimates between 80-87%, eSwatini ranks amongst South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya in cell phone ownership. The proliferation of mobile phone use within rural sub-Saharan Africa means that rural communities are becoming less isolated, easier to reach, and more integrated within national and regional economic and social networks. 

As the largest employer in eSwatini, employing over 70% of the population, the agriculture sector has been a primary development focus for the Government of eSwatini. Yet, productivity within the sector has been declining over time. Growth within the sector is constrained by a number of factors, including poor reach of extension services due to lack of capacity and resources, lack of reliable data for farmers to inform decision-making, and lack of organisation amongst farmers to improve integration into existing value chains, in addition to pressure on the sector from climate change impacts and climate variability. 

These constraints are examples of the disconnect often seen within information and communication systems in sub-Saharan Africa that leave smallholder farmers isolated from the skills, technologies, inputs, and markets that enable growth.

Mobile phone technology offers an easy, affordable, and effective way to bridge the information gaps and connect the different links within agricultural value chains. As in other sub-Saharan countries, mobile phone messaging and alert systems are being used is eSwatini to disseminate weather and climate information, communicate early warning for extreme weather events, connect farmers with various links within the food value chain, and improve reach of extension services. 

Given the promise of mobile phone use in the agricultural sector, the RFS eSwatini project has been piloting the use of an SMS-based messaging system, linked to the national Agricultural Market and Information System (AMIS). The SMS system sends bulk messages to farmers, sending a variety of information related to disease management for both crops and animals, climate information, disease outbreaks and market information. 

The messaging system is designed to not only help farmers receive information, but also to support the organisations that are mandated with providing and disseminating that information. Because the RFS project covers a large area with a large number of beneficiaries, the project team is now able to quickly communicate messages that previously required face-to-face communication or phone calls. This innovation is saving the project team time and resources while still ensuring beneficiaries get the most up-to-date information and support. 

The pilot showed significant success rates in communicated disease outbreaks and how to control them and in mobilising farmers to attend meetings and market events. The success of the pilot should encourage further scaling of the intervention in eSwatini and the eventual application of the system in other RFS countries where communication challenges are constraining the growth of smallholder agricultural systems.

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