How Technology is Helping Filipino Farmers Weather Storms

As Asia-Pacific Climate Week continues, Gigi Gatti, Director of Technology for Development at Grameen Foundation blogs about the impact the NGO’s FarmerLink initiative has had on building the resilience of coconut farmers to climate shocks.

Every year farmers in the Philippines brace themselves for the inevitable tropical cyclones and their devastating impact. This year is no different. The seventh storm hit this week. They may get as many as 20 storms by December.

The challenge is especially acute for the smallholder farmers that power the country’s coconut export industry. Although the Philippines is the world’s second-largest coconut producer, more than 60 percent of the 3.5 million farmers remain entrenched in poverty, earning less than $400 per year.

Since 2013, coconut farmers have lost more than 40 million trees to storms and pests. Many are still recovering as replanted coconut seedlings can take eight to ten years to mature and another decade to reach full production. It is a precarious timeline for families struggling to make ends meet. Their situation is further compounded by declining yields from aging trees and limited access to the financing and training needed to bolster their farms.

In 2015, Grameen Foundation and its partners launched FarmerLink, a first-of-its kind mobile-based farmer advisory service that simultaneously links poor coconut farmers to an early warning system, vital agricultural training, financial services and market buyers.

FarmerLink supports two-way communication and offline data collection, and can be used in remote areas that lack data connectivity. Field agents and other trusted local advisors use the FarmerLink tool to collect rich, real-time, farm-level data and create individualized farm development plans for farmers, and to send targeted alerts and agronomic advice via SMS These messages reinforce the training provided by field agents, as well as financial advice.

During the 18-month pilot, which was funded by the Global Resilience Partnership, we sent agronomic advice to 27,557 farmers, while agents provided individualized plans and training to 1,525 farmers. Farm agents were also able to reduce the time spent on organic certification inspections to 14 minutes (a 62% time reduction).

FarmerLink offers some key lessons for technology-based agricultural services.

Build partnerships for long-term resilience

Farmers’ complex needs require different stakeholders with complementary interests and capabilities. The Philippine Coconut Agency needed new ways to grow the industry. Franklin Baker wanted to ensure a consistent supply of high-quality nuts. The People’s Bank of Caraga developed a special loan to enable farmers to intercrop cacao and coconut and diversify their incomes.

Embed inclusive decision-making processes

We adopted user-centered design principles that allowed us to adjust the design and implementation of the project to meet farmers’ needs. For example, we designed a calendar to help farmers follow the agronomic advice and, despite the Philippines’ high literacy rate overall, identified the need for videos to provide FarmerLink services to less literate farmers.

Embrace tension between outreach and impact

As grant terms shorten, especially for projects that are testing new ground, there must be a healthy balance between outreach and impact during program design and rollout. While our 18-month project timeline and the natural life cycle of coconuts limited our ability to fully capture impact, we identified early markers of change that, if sustained over time, can provide meaningful indicators.

In our current phase work, we are helping the People’s Bank of Caraga provide loans to farmers and worked with the Philippine Coconut Authority to expand the functionality of the FarmerLink tool. Farmers still receive SMS updates and we are testing other sources of weather data to enhance the early warning system alerts they receive.

As smallholder farmers continue to grapple with the complexities and challenges of climate change and evolving market forces, mobile agriculture will play an increasingly critical role in shaping a new agricultural system. We believe tools like FarmerLink help to ensure that smallholder farmers are a vital part of the future of agriculture.