7 Reasons Why Farmers Do Not Use Market Price SMS Text Messages

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On Friday, we had the startling realization that fishermen do not use mobile phones to compare market prices of fish. Besides cultural and legal limitations to their ability to sell in different markets, as Tony Roberts points out, fishermen don’t see neo-liberal wealth maximization as their ultimate goal in life.
But what about farmers? Could they be using mobile phones to learn about current market prices, and thereby maximize incomes? Well, they might be, but they are probably not using SMS to learn about market prices.
Join us for ICTforAg to explore the many ways farmers are using mobile phones to improve their lives.
The Case Against SMS Market Prices for Farmers
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In “Why Don’t Farmers Use Cell Phones to Access Market Prices?” researchers Susan Wyche and Charles Steinfield of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University, looked at the use (and disuse) of mFarm by farmers in rural Kenya.
Despite the hundreds of thousands of donor darling dollars showered on mFarm, Wyche and Stienfield found seven simple and obvious reasons why farmers do not use SMS text messages for market price information.
1. Mobile Phones Are Social Tools Not Information Delivery Platforms
Farmers primarily perceived mobile phones as devices that can support verbal communication among their friends and family, not a business tool. This reference even extended to the most popular input keys: the green call and red hang-up buttons on a feature phone.
The response in Kenya is mirrored by similar responses across the continent that consistently show that mobile phone usage is primarily for maintaining individual social networks, which are vital to survival in extreme poverty contexts.
2. Text Messaging Isn’t Easy
mFarm, like many SMS-based services, requires the farmer to start and modify the service using text messages. While texting can be difficult in English, its much harder still in local languages like Swahili, Bukusu, and Luo, which have long words that can be spelled multiple ways.
Farmers would need to understand how to input letters, spaces, and symbols, and switch between upper and lower case letters, all on a tiny keyboard that could have T9 predictive text. Oh and do all this correctly in Swahili or English.
3. No Confirmation That a Text Was Received
When farmers call someone, and speak to them directly, they know their message was received. However, if they send a text message, they never know if the intended recipient got the text until they respond.
This makes text messaging an unreliable communications channel. Farmers don’t know if their text went through or not, or if it was read or not, or if the recipient just didn’t know how to use a text message, or felt it was too difficult to respond. With all that uncertainly, it’s just easier to call.
4. Using Mobile Phones is Expensive
We may not appreciate how hard a poor person works to manage their money. When farmers are making a few hundred Kenyan shillings a day, every shilling counts. In this context, sending a text message feels expensive, especially when they don’t know if the person received the text.
Even voice calls can get expensive fast, but at least the farmer knows if the other party received their news, and what their response might be. That can matter, and easily be more cost-effective than a text message.
5. Reading a Tiny Screen is Hard
Farmers typically have poor eyesight, which is a consequence of age, health, and using fuel-based lightning vs. electrical lighting in the home. With this reduced vision, farmers found the small screen of their feature phone handsets too inadequate to read even short SMS text announcements.
The earlier language literacy issue compounds the eyesight problem to make small feature phone screens pretty much unusable for many farmers in rural Kenya, even if they can read the letters when they squint.
6. Harder Still With a Poor Quality Handset
Farmers typically received their handset from a friend, or its was bought many years ago and is now a relic of the past. Either way, phones are held together with rubber bands or string, making it very difficult for farmers to use their phones.
That’s before screen parallax and straight-up broken or cracked screens that obscure the handset screen completely, or keyboards so old that letters and numbers are worn away.
7. Or Without Any Battery Life
The researchers found that many handsets were turned off to preserve their charge, as access to electricity is still very low in rural Kenya. Some participants even talked about charging their phones up to 10Km away in a charging kiosk.
These power issues make it extremely difficult to send farmers real-time price information, and combined with the other 6 reasons, serve as a disincentive to using SMS text messages to find market prices for agricultural products.
Could it be that other technology tools are better than SMS text for disseminating market price data? Like voice calls, or FM radio? Or maybe even old-school printed paper communication?