Small Business

Seeding resilience in a digital age

July 30, 2020 | By Maggie Sieger

Like many smallholder farmers in many parts of Africa, Andrew Mukasa often struggles to get his crops to market and to get paid in a timely manner. He must coordinate with agents and other smallholders in the Masaka District of Uganda to have his crops transported and sold before they rot. Then he waits. It can be weeks or even months before he sees any return on the fruit, vegetables and grains he grows. Other farmers don’t have a way to get their crops to market and must take whatever price they are offered by whoever happens to come to their farm gate.

The biggest problem is that Mukasa, like other smallholders, survives on just an acre of land, and is one of the hundreds of millions of farmers worldwide living in a cash-only world. These digitally disconnected individuals are excluded from access to markets, critical services and mainstream financial solutions, limiting their growth and making it hard to plan for the future.

Cash payments make it easy for the middlemen who transport their crops to take a substantial and disproportionate share of the profits. And there is little room to negotiate. With no digital record of transactions, transparency becomes an issue — the sale is invisible. Without a digital history of what is being bought and sold, farmers struggle to prove their income, which limits their ability to access working capital. No credit means they can’t buy equipment to make farming more efficient or transport and sell their own crops.

Like many microbusinesses across the developing world, these issues make it hard for smallholder farmers like Mukasa to support their families, much less save and feel financially secure, even in the best of times. It’s often not clear what price can be asked and what demand there is for a particular crop. Add in a shutdown caused by a global pandemic, and smallholders around the world face the very real threat they could lose all income from their crops this year.

Digital technology can help bring more visibility to supply chains and help move these farmers away from cash-based interactions. In 2017 in East Africa, Mastercard launched the Mastercard Farmer Network (MFN), a digital marketplace for smallholder farmers that gives them improved access to buyers via farmer cooperatives and increased price transparency.

Now live in India as well, MFN provides farmers and cooperatives with digital records of their sales and facilitates buyer purchasing from farmer cooperatives directly, eliminating the middlemen and the markups they create. MFN communicates to farmers via SMS, making it easy to work in locations and access markets where internet connectivity is limited. During six weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, Indian farmers were able to sell 51 tons of produce through the network.

MFN has launched in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and India, where we are actively adding commercial buyers and other service providers, such as financial institutions, to continue to deepen our service offerings. For the smallholder farmers who have joined the platform, MFN provides transparency throughout the value chain — from predicted and collected harvest inventory through to purchase.

“Farmers appreciate being paid digitally as their money is safe — safer than hard cash. They also trust the system and are happy to have technology improve their lives.”
- Andrew Mukasa

Today, financial inclusion means digital inclusion, and MFN is only one component of Mastercard’s Community Pass. It’s a digital platform that connects people in the most remote and marginalized communities across the many responsibilities they assume throughout their lives, or even throughout their days — paying for school fees for their children, getting regular vaccinations for their families, selling their goods, growing their businesses — all of which can put them on pathways to prosperity.

This shared digital infrastructure, supported by a consistent digital way to verify identity and embedded with payment and data capabilities, enables both access to and usage of these services, boosting resilience and helping these communities thrive. Through Mastercard’s partnerships across the public, private and social sectors, these low-cost solutions can be scaled efficiently and effectively with a host of value-added services.

“We are applying our talent, technology and partnerships to tackle the digital divide and ensure the most marginalized communities can access critical, often live-saving services,” says Tara Nathan, executive vice president, Humanitarian & Development, Mastercard. “Our approach focuses on the individual, so she shows up as the same person and can consistently and easily get the support she needs to help her family thrive."

Nathan Kasendwa, another smallholder farmer in Uganda, uses MFN to track his purchases and sales. It has significantly improved communication and increased transparency, he says, making it easier and more profitable to manage his farm business. Plus, now he has access to money from his sales in seconds.

He’s also teaching other farmers how new digital solutions can improve their lives. “Technology empowers Africa’s people and markets,” he says. “It’s crucial to economic growth, so I embrace it.”

Maggie Sieger, Contributor