Holly Norcop travelled to Zimbabwe to examine technology’s potential for international development.
Just ahead of Mr Osborne’s spending plan announcement, crossbencher the Earl of Sandwich opened a debate in the House of Lords to discuss how to make international aid more effective. “With the Treasury coming down heavily on other departments, it is even more urgent that we in the UK sign up to an open and fully accountable aid programme” he stated. The timing of this debate implies an expectation of public resentment towards ring-fencing international aid. However there is an undeniable logic to addressing the issues that cause poverty abroad at their source, especially when Britain may have historically exacerbated social inequality in developing countries. Although the shift in priorities towards international aid is unlikely to be totally altruistic, it instead reflects awareness, possibly emphasised by the Syrian refugee crisis, that we are an increasingly globalised society. To put it simply: with the recent evolution of international media, business, communication and travel, ours is a small world getting smaller, and the wellbeing of foreign populations will inevitably impact our economy and society.
Whatever your stance is on foreign aid, within the current climate of austerity the pressure is on for the Department for International Development (DfID) to perform well. However despite a sizeable commitment of 0.7 per cent of annual GDP, significantly increasing the level of sustainable development is unlikely to be an easy task. The key issues raised in the reports and discussed during the debate, included the short-term nature of government grants and a need to support benefactors more directly; “when government is inefficient, corrupt or clearly not working to plan.” But how does that translate in the world of international development? I discussed this with Perseus Mlambo, the co-founder of Farmficciency, a company which uses new technology to combat global development issues.
What made you want to start a social investment business in Africa?
“When I returned to [my native] Zimbabwe to volunteer with Progressio, I realised some of the challenges that people are facing can be easily solved with innovation and technology rather than aid. Farmers were losing [out] on profits because of exploitative brokers and I wanted to help them get fairer prices.”
Could you tell me a little about the process of developing your idea?
“I guess I started by asking, ‘What if?’ Like what if farmers didn’t have to travel six hours to sell their products?
“In Kenya when there was no cash, they invented mobile payments and now it’s the hot thing in Europe. In Zimbabwe eco-cash dominates Zimbabwean economics. So I wanted to integrate this platform into something everybody would [already] be familiar with. I thought what if the final consumer could interact directly with the farmer? And that’s how Farmficciency came about really.”
What is Farmficciency?
“Farmficciency is essentially a company in two halves; the first [is] being built now. We are trying to improve profits for smallholder farmers by linking them [directly] to corporate buyers using mobile phones. The way that you do that is connecting people who are selling food and people who are buying food, and replacing the middle men who take most [of] the profit.”
And the second part?
“We hope that in the future farmers can use the platform to update data which we can [then] analyse using image recognition, and provide specific advice on farming. We could check for patterns and we can [sic] provide farmers with tailored agricultural advice via [their] mobile phones. But that’s theoretical at the moment until we can turn that funding into revenue and build a marketplace.”
What’s your biggest current challenge?
“Maintaining realistic expectations. We are working with smallholder farmers who are eager and waiting for this technology. So as soon as we advertised on the radio more and more people are actually coming [sic] to us, and companies are interested in us. Because a market has an interesting way of building itself, the more people talk about your platform, the more people want to get involved. It’s almost like going viral.”
You have the supply and demand in place, but you haven’t got the digital marketplace?
“Not yet, but we are working on building it. We wanted to prove that the idea was viable so we jumped the gun and advertised before we built anything, and created demand for our company.
Because of the messages we have been getting from buyers and sellers we had to find volunteers to hand match those connections so far while we develop our platform. This way we have [the consumers’] input right from the start.”
What is the next step for you?
“To build the platform and make sure it scales [new heights]. Things are really exciting at the minute – you just keep thinking of where the product could take us. ‘What if?’ is the biggest question right now.”
Can you give me an example? What’s your biggest “what if?”
“What if every farmer across Africa could increase their profits using this platform? -I’m hoping I’ll have an answer to that in the next few years.”
If DfID is going to help Britain fulfil its commitment to help eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 then technological social enterprises like Farmficciency could help to solve some of the issues traditional aid has faced. For example if mobile communication can be used to directly engage benefactors, development projects won’t have to rely on potentially inefficient foreign governments or charitable institutions. Social enterprises (businesses that trade on the open market which have a positive social impact,) are in the best position to take advantage of technological advancement. This is because they do not need to adhere to the restrictive bureaucratic processes of grant-based funding. They can also create a more sustainable impact because they are self-funded by generating profit rather than relying on short-term grants. However we should be cautious of any call to replace international aid with social enterprises. The business model has a profit-oriented focus on the immediate market place, and would not be motivated to advocate for the social changes necessary to address poverty on a macro level. Instead both DfID and international charities must take advantage of the technological development market campaigning for a fairer global society.