USAID Assessment of Market Information Systems in Africa

This Assessment of Market Information Systems in Africa briefing paper presents the results of an assessment carried out to explore the current use of sustainable (without on-going donor support) and scalable (potentially to millions of farmers) agricultural market price information systems (MIS) in Africa, with a particular focus on East Africa. Its goal is to add value to the discussion in the region regarding alternative approaches to improving affordable access to market prices to value chain actors, including poor smallholder farmers – the target beneficiaries of USAID Feed the Future projects.

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The research, which was conducted between May and October 2012, included interviews with managers from MIS providers in Africa, along with practitioners and academics. The full list of MIS covered by this assessment is as follows:

Due to the increasingly regional nature of agricultural markets in East Africa and USAID’s focus on facilitating cross- border trade, gaining access to crop prices across the region is of great interest to development practitioners. By now, most countries in East Africa have access to a variety of existing MIS platforms which follow diverse models – some are governmental projects, some are private efforts, and a few are public/private partnerships. Some of these systems are growing well; while others are stalled pilots; and a few are in the process of being assessed. Most focus on a particular country or set of commodities, while a few provide information on regional markets.
The focus for this analysis is on market price information services to enhance trade and competitiveness of smallholder farmers, not to track trends in prices. Clearly, the latter can be a side benefit of the former but the test of value is whether the prices are useful for commercial decisions.
Market price services are not provided in a vacuum. Farmers also want information related to agricultural processes, pests, weather, sources of inputs and more. Market research shows that it may be most cost effective (and hence more likely to be sustainable), if a platform combines market price services with other information services. While this assessment focused particularly on market prices, it also sought to understand the relative effectiveness of models that provide a larger basket of information services.
The dramatic increase in affordable access to mobile phone networks has opened potential new opportunities for MIS – for both data collection and dissemination – though other more traditional channels (radio, paper, chalkboards) are also still valuable as complements to the “mobile channel.”
In order to ensure long-term sustainability at a sufficient scale, it is critical that any supported system – or – set of integrated systems – be based on a business model that enables the services to be sustained and extended to millions of farmers. Scalability at this level has been elusive to date. Given that many Ministries of Agriculture consider market price information to be an important public good, governments may also play a key role in any successful business model, either via public-private solutions, content producers, key customers or funders.