Text for tips: Increasing farmers’ crop yields via an SMS-based knowledge exchange with agricultural extension specialists

Researchers from Harvard University, Innovations for Poverty Action, & Mumias Sugar Company |Kenya

$96,394 | Stage 1: Proof of Concept | Agriculture & Food Security

The problem: Lack of access to information on the latest agricultural breakthroughs is holding down remote farmers’ incomes

An estimated 75 percent of the world's poor rely on agriculture for all or some of their household income. Increasing agricultural productivity and incomes is essential for poverty reduction. Studies show that missing the ideal date for planting day can reduce a crop’s yield by 10 percent. Educating farmers through agricultural extension programs on how and when to plant crops can increase productivity and technology adoption, ultimately boosting farmers’ incomes. However, agricultural extension workers in Kenya currently reach only a small portion of rural producers, stymied by the high costs of running face-to-face programs in hard-to-access regions of the country.

The solution: Text for tips

Text for Tips
Alexander Joe AFP

Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, and Innovations for Poverty Action have teamed up with Mumias Sugar Company, the largest sugar producer in Kenya, on a program that uses text messages to reach remote farmers with advice on how to increase their yields. The program uses tailored text messages and voicemails to educate farmers about best practices, send seasonal reminders about what farmers should be doing to have the best results come harvest season, notify farmers about current prices, and address farmers’ questions.

The research team is using DIV funding to test the text messaging system with sugar cane farmers in Kenya. Initially, the program will directly reach 20,000 of the estimated 250,000 sugar cane farmers in the country, with the goal of scaling up to reach millions of farmers of all stripes across sub-Saharan Africa.

The potential: Cost-effectiveness, impacts, and implications

According to IPA field-testing, more than half of all sugar cane farmers in Kenya have a cell phone, and nearly 90 percent have access to a mobile phone through a neighbor or relative. As of 1999, only 2 percent of farmers were meeting with agricultural extension workers. Moreover, text messages are inexpensive, costing less than a nickel per message in Kenya’s competitive mobile phone market. Given the high costs extension services to remote regions, – over $120 million in 2006 – this approach represents massive savings compared to traditional extension programs and can be expanded across the entire agricultural sector.

Additionally, with over 70 percent of the world’s population using mobile phones and the low per-farmer cost of running the program, there is a major opportunity for the initiative to serve as a model to scale globally, enhancing crop productivity, increasing food security and raising incomes for farmers that are currently living at the edge of subsistence.

To learn more:

  • Watch a TED talk by Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan, the principal investigator of the study
  • Learn about the evidence of impact on agricultural productivity of agricultural extension services 
  • Find out about the Mumias Sugar Company 


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Last updated: August 28, 2015

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