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An Interview Between +SocialGood’s Shariha Khalid Erichsen and Anushka Ratnayake of myAgro

Global changemakers gathered in University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, entrepreneurial approaches, and innovative solutions to address the world’s most pressing challenges. +SocialGood Connector and Managing Partner at Mission & Co., Shariha Khalid Erichsen reported from the forum to discuss the emerging themes, solutions and how we can collaborate to shape interventions and dialogue.

In this interview, Shariha speaks with Anushka Ratnayake, CEO and Founder of myAgro, an organisation that has pioneered a mobile layaway microsavings model in West Africa to help farmers save little by little for high-quality seeds, fertilizer, tools, and training to significantly increase their harvests and income. This interview was originally published on +SocialGood's Medium page.

Photo Credit: Gabriel Diamond from Skoll Foundation

Meet Anushka Ratnayake:

Anushka is the Founder and CEO of myAgro. She has worked in rural Africa since mid-2008, helping to increase food security and market access for small-scale farmers. Prior to starting myAgro, she developed key components of One Acre Fund’s core operation model, created management-training programs and traveled across Africa and South Asia in search of innovations in the microfinance and agricultural sectors.

Before joining One Acre Fund, Anushka was an early employee of and created the Kiva Fellows Program. Anushka received her BA in Literature from University of California, Santa Cruz and her agricultural training from smallholder farmers in Bungoma, Kenya. Anushka is a 2011–2013 Rainer Arnhold Fellow, a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow and a 2013 DRK Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Fellow.

*Note: Interview edited lightly for clarity

Shariha: Anushka, thanks for joining me to chat about technology and social good. Firstly, congratulations on being a Skoll Awardee. This is a massive achievement for the work that you do. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your organisation, myAgro?

Anushka: Thank you for having me. I started myAgro prior to which I received a degree in literature and was studying to go to law school. I believed that law school would be the best way to make impact. It was while I was preparing for law school that I started volunteering at Kiva. Kiva is a microfinance organisation and I was their sixth employee. It is here that I very quickly learned a lot about microfinance. This was right after Mr. Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and I was really excited about the promise of microfinance.

I worked with Kiva for few years in the area of risk and then moved to Kenya where I worked for a microfinance organisation giving loans to farmers. In the process, I learned that farmers make the biggest group of poor people in the world. With cash-flow being their primary problem, I observed how they have money at harvest time but then fast-forward to 9 months and they don’t have money at planting time. It is the planting time when they need to invest as small as $30 or $50 into their farms to double the amount of food they are growing.

For the first 3 years when I was in Kenya, I started speaking with and listening to a lot of farmers. I spent every week in the field and would go house to house with farmers to understand how they managed their finances and how they wanted to invest in their farms. I started to notice that they were looking for options that would allow them to over repay their loan for the next year or options to pre-pay their loan a few months or even a year or two in advance.

Although they were using the language of credit, I realised that what they were actually describing was their need for a savings model. This is how the idea to start myAgro started taking shape. I wanted to work towards developing a savings product that would work given the small amounts of money, often one or two dollars at a time, that a farmer would need to accumulate over the course of 9–12 months to pay for the seeds and fertilisers they needed for farming.

One day I toyed with the idea of creating a platform that is similar to the one that lets people buy top-up minutes for their phone. What if our platform could help farmers buy seeds and fertiliser little by little? And this is how myAgro came into being.

With some initial funding, I moved to Mali and started testing the idea. Initially we wanted to pilot this project with 30 farmers in 2012 but ended up working with 240 farmers. We have a network of boutiques or stores that are in the rural villages where farmers already shop. We partner with these stores. myAgro vendors or agents help enrol farmers by understanding their planting needs.

The farmers then go to the local store and buy a scratch card. Each time they buy a scratch card, they send us a text message- the secret code. Their layaway, myAgro account gets updated with the money they have paid. We then purchase the seeds and fertilisers and deliver it to the farmers at the start of the planting season.

Shariha: That is fantastic. I really like the idea of how you use a mobile layaway model and scratch cards to help farmers save money. You are fostering a connection by using the available technology which is a simple mobile phone. But what really stands out for me is how you are directly addressing proximity, the theme for this year’s conference, through your work at myAgro. I am interested to learn more about how you are addressing the theme of inclusion and proximity through the technology solutions you have implemented.

Anushka: myAgro would not exist if I was not proximate to the farmers. Essentially this was their idea. Like I shared, the farmers described their need to have a savings product. I feel for any solution to work and be successful, it has to come from the people who need it. And unless we spend time with them and understand their needs, the challenges and barriers they face and the opportunities they have, we cannot design a product that will address their problems.

myAgro technology platform works because we studied the needs of the farmers for years and factored in their behaviour as much as possible while designing the platform. Small but significant details such as choosing the stores they were most likely to shop at, work well. Also, the values of the cards we sell match the values that the farmers have accessibility to. Say for example a woman might sell donuts outside a school and her earnings would be $2. She could spend $1 on myAgro and the remaining $1 could go towards her other needs. Thus we have a $1 card that farmers like her can purchase. This flexibility is what they like. It fits their life so well that farmers often tell us that they don’t even feel the pinch of putting money aside. This is huge and very impactful coming from a farmer who has to live on a mere earning of $1.50 or $2.00. I feel the reason we have had such success is because our technology has been designed in a way that fits our farmers’ lives as opposed to farmers having to change their behaviour to adapt to our technology.

Our technology model also helps us understand customer behaviour and preferences. Every payment is time-stamped. We know exactly who made the payment, where and when they made the payment and how much was bought. In addition to this, we also have a client data that records their data right from the first time they enrolled. This helps us track the history. For example the most popular time for a woman to make a payment is after 9pm at night.

We accordingly advise our vendors to keep the store open in the evenings and also make sure that there is light outside so that a woman feels safe and comfortable coming to the store. In some cases, we also can establish the need for the vendors to go home and collect the payment. This makes data analytics possible and it’s the proximity with our farmers that helps us understand how they are actually using this tool and ways in which we can adapt our strategies to make it more convenient and user-friendly.

Shariha: That is indeed interesting. I love how you are modelling and designing the technology solutions and the customer services around what works for your end users. If we look at the statistics, 80% of the poorest in the world are rural farmers. What do you think is the opportunity that we can bring, not just through myAgro but generally through advances, fintech, mobile technologies and so on for the agriculture space and also ultimately for the livelihoods of these farmers?

Anushka: It’s a really exciting time. Frankly, I think we have all the technology and tools that we need to serve farmers. While every farmer has a different need, their problem is essentially the same. They all need cash, seeds, fertilisers and training at planting time. So the technology that will help solve this problem needs to focus on this.

Let’s take for e.g. mobile money. There is a lot of promise around mobile money. There is a lot of desire for farmers to use mobile money. But CGAP out of the World Bank has found that in Tanzania it’s about 14% of farmers who actually use mobile money. So the question is if there are these great tools, how do we make sure it fits a specific problem that the farmers are facing. For e.g. with myAgro we help bridge the gap between the harvest time when farmers have the money and the planting time when the farmers don’t have the cash required to purchase seeds and fertilisers.

As it is specific to their needs and addresses a specific problem they are facing, farmers are using our tool. Through fintech and technology, there is a great opportunity to reach a wider community of rural and remote farmers. All we need to be mindful of is to customise interventions that are specific to customer needs.

Shariha: Would you have any words to share with aspiring entrepreneurs who also want to come into the agriculture space as there is a huge opportunity there to make a difference?

Anushka: To start with, I would recommend that you find an organisation you like or admire. You can take up volunteering over the summer or take up an internship or even explore full-time career opportunities. Have conversations and work closely with the farmers. Shadow a field agent, or attend a training, observe planting, try planting, as it’s incredibly hard when you are doing it manually. As you spend more time with the farmers, you can understand where you can add value and help them. This will help you bring to the table your skills and expertise and areas where you can help- be it market access, training or fintech.

Shariha: Thank you so much and please continue the amazing work you are doing. I look forward to seeing you reach 1 million farmers by 2025.

For more on myAgro’s work, you can follow them on Twitter @myAgroFarms and Facebook

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