Seeding resilience in a digital age

June 10, 2021 | By Maggie Sieger

Like smallholder farmers in many parts of Africa, Jackson Eustus had no way of knowing whether he was being paid accurately for his beans, coffee, cassava, and other crops. He had no way to check or confirm the latest market prices in Tanzania’s Kyerwa District and could not be guaranteed a fair trade. Middlemen took a substantial and disproportionate share of the profits and there was little room to negotiate. With no digital record of transactions, transparency became an issue — the sale was invisible.

In the Masaka District of Uganda, Andrew Mukasa often struggled to get his crops to market and to get paid in a timely manner. He coordinated with traders and other farmers to have his crops transported and sold before they rot. Then he waited. It could be weeks or even months before he saw any return on the fruit, vegetables and grains he grows.

Smallholder farmers survive on just a few acres of land or less, and they are among the hundreds of millions of farmers worldwide who have been living in a cash-only world. Digitally disconnected, they are excluded from access to reliable markets, fair prices, critical services and mainstream financial solutions, limiting their growth and making it hard to improve their livelihoods.

Digital technology can help bring more visibility to supply chains and help move these farmers away from unreliable and risky cash-based interactions. In Kenya in 2015, Mastercard piloted the Mastercard Farmers Network (MFN), a digital marketplace for smallholder farmers that gives them improved access to buyers and increased price transparency, and it has since expanded to Tanzania, Uganda, and beyond.  

Without a digital history of their crop sales, farmers struggle to prove their income which limits their ability to access basic financial services and working capital. Lack of access to credit means they can’t buy inputs such as quality seed and fertilizer, which can significantly increase their harvest, or equipment to make farming more efficient.

Like many microbusinesses across the developing world, these issues make it hard for farmers like Mukasa and Jackson 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.

MFN provides farmers and cooperatives with digital records of their sales and facilitates buyer purchasing from farmer cooperatives directly, often eliminating middlemen and the markups they create.

Today, financial inclusion means digital inclusion, and MFN is only one component of Mastercard’s broader initiative to reach its goal of bringing 1 billion people and 50 million small business into the digital economy by 2025.

MFN is part of Community Pass, a key solution in driving Mastercard’s efforts to digitize transactions and increase vital services for the base of the economic pyramid (BoP). The Community Pass digital platform connects people in the most marginalized communities to services, addressing  the many responsibilities they assume throughout their lives, or even throughout their days — paying for school fees for their children, getting 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 way to digitally verify identity and embedded with payment and data capabilities, enables both access to and usage of these services, boosting resilience, protecting privacy 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, giving her an identity so she can consistently and easily get the support she needs to help her family thrive in a privacy enhanced, secure manner."

Nathan Kasendwa, another farmer in Uganda who says MFN has made his business easier to run and more profitable, is now teaching other farmers how 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.”


This story was originally published July 30, 2020. It was updated to include additional information about Jackson Eustus. 

Maggie Sieger, Contributor