Mobile Agriculture in Egypt: Food for Thought

The phenomenal spread of smartphones and the fact that they are practically hand-sized computers, have opened way to the creation of countless ‘mobile applications’ or simply ‘apps’. The first apps that came to light were as expected, for social media and different entertainment channels. They were followed by ‘modern life’ apps in the areas of health, education, agriculture and many more. Almost every area imaginable in our life now has a mobile app that caters to it.

Mobile Agriculture in Africa

During the course of my work at Orange Egypt, I’ve seen a great amount of interest in mobile agriculture by every mobile operator in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The combined portfolio offered by the operators is so versatile, I doubt if there is even any room for improvement.

Taking the Orange group as an example; there are apps that send timed text messages about planting, fertilizers, weather forecasts and crop prices. There are other apps that help farmers conduct financial transactions safely and easily. In several countries, the group avails a hotline where callers can get ‘live’ expert advice and discussions.

Mobile Agriculture in Egypt

In Egypt, the mobile agriculture market is more challenging for several reasons mainly due to bureaucracy, national security considerations and culture. Nevertheless, Egypt is an excellent candidate for a sustainable m-Agri application that benefits a lot of people and does well to the overall farming sector.

The agricultural sector in Egypt accounts for 15% of GDP. It employs over 8 Million people or 32% of the total workforce. One third of the Egyptian people are related somehow to someone in the agricultural sector.

We are fortunate that Orange Labs has one of its head offices based in Cairo. When it comes to m-Agri, there is no shortage of ideas; Orange Labs have developed several mobile solutions; most notably:

  1. Agricultural Wallet: Enables users to keep track of their fertilizer and seed rations. It organizes and records transactions between farmers and government cooperative societies thus eliminating confusion, waste and possibility of corruption.
  2. Smart Agriculture Probes: A B2B application that measures water levels in canals and sends them to a central unit; all part of an efficient water management system

Both apps address a pressing need and offer a solution to persistent problems, potentially saving the government significant amounts of money and effort. Unfortunately, and in all frankness, they never went past the point of a working pilot. Governmental authorities were uncooperative, unwilling and even afraid to get involved; and so nothing happened ever since.

Then, there were the B2C applications

  1. Bashaier Developed by Knowledge Economy Foundation. It is a market platform where users – farmers and wholesale merchants – log in for spot prices. It also includes a hotline where callers get expert advice on farming issues.

Bashaier is a good idea, however it needs much work and expense to keep it updated and of value, and that’s probably the reason it’s currently dormant; however I invite to visit the Knowledge Foundation’s site or download the application from Google Play.

  1. RAMIS: Stands for “Rural Agricultural Management Information System”. Collaboration between UN’s FAO, Orange Egypt, AUC’s Research Institute for Sustainable Development and a local NGO specializing in farming.

The project idea was to send text messages to participating farmers guiding them throughout the planting season. A hotline to receive live calls was also contemplated but was not launched due to budgetary reasons. This was a free service, sponsored by the 3 main partners.

The project also required extensive ‘ground work’ to ensure it is well accepted and understood by the community.

I was heavily involved in RAMIS and based on the feedback we got, the participants appreciated the idea, found the information innovative and useful although we’re not sure if they would be willing to pay a recurrent subscription fee for it.

  1. Kenana Online Part of the ‘Social Development Portal’ and developed by the Egyptian Fund for Information Technology. Kenana is a free service that is full useful information about agriculture but so far it’s only a web service with plans to turn it to a mobile app soon.

There you have it, the top mobile agriculture application in Egypt.

The Ideal Project Plan

Having that said; I see that the most practical approach for a project that

  1. Employs technology, particularly mobile
  2. Creates sustainable improvement in the lives of people working in agriculture, and
  3. Capitalizes on Public Private Partnerships, should be along these lines.

A simple mobile app; USSD based, to fit all type mobiles. This app would be an advisory tool that disseminates specific, verified and timed information to subscribers.

Moreover, this application would be supported by a helpline, say a hotline where callers can get expert advice either instantly or within 48 hours, depending on the complexity of the question.

At the start, these text messages can be free of charge. The cost of the call would be nominal, until we get the needed buy in.

Another option for project funding is corporate sponsors, typically food processing companies interested in seeing a better crop. These companies will be willing to pay a little more for a win-win situation. Tomatoes, potatoes, jasmine and sugar beet are all crops that would fit this scenario perfectly.

A final and essential task, a key element of success, is field work. Similar to what was done in RAMIS. Egyptian farmers are not highly educated, so having someone reach out to them physically will make a great difference.

About Sherif Issa

Sherif Issa Heads the Environmental Sustainability at Orange Egypt. He holds master’s in Civil | Environmental Engineering from City University of New York and a Bachelor degree from Cairo University. He is currently responsible for developing and maintaining the environmental management system of the company covering aspects of operations. Sherif is a member in several focus groups and governmental committees like the Scientific Research of the National Council of Women and Environmental Education committee of the Ministry of Culture.
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