Farmers learn how to beat the market – via cell phone

Rural farmers, a struggling population in Mexico, will profit from using cell phones. A mobile platform combines SMS, financial tools, and social networking to connect isolated farmers to one another, to the market, and to large companies who may purchase their produce.

MIT is busy putting cell phones to work to help change the world. Zaca is a project begun by MIT?s NextLab students. Their technical team is working with FrontlineSMS, which enables instantaneous two-way communication that?s easy to implement, simple to use, and the software is free.

The Mexican farmer faces difficult, and sometimes impossible, challenges caused by crop failures due to weather, inefficient planting, and lousy compensation for their effort. With the new cell-phone-based application, they can learn of current market prices, thereby avoiding exploitation by middle men; find out what their neighbors are planting, thereby avoiding over production of one crop; and exchange farming tips, thereby keeping abreast of new ideas and techniques being utilized by others within their far flung rural community.

Although Zacatecas is an extremely fertile region of Mexico, agricultural and commercial ignorance has trapped generations in perpetual poverty. The hope is to maintain the population by providing a viable means of self support. Communities have dwindled from emigration, 208 have been lost entirely. Over 54% of Zacatecas? population has gone north across the border to the United States. Zaca aims to give farmers a reason to remain and become profitable in their own hometown.

Zaca, a low-cost, highly implementable cell-phone-based platform, provides easy access to invaluable information which helps the farmer earn a decent living. Farmers can collaborate, form a cooperative, and keep in touch without wasting precious field time traveling to a meeting. With timely information, they can bargain collectively for better pricing from the middlemen, and make crop-planting decisions based on current weather, market, and fellow farmers? plans. Companies can use Zaca to place orders with one farm or the farming cooperative.

Surprisingly, even in low-income rural areas, cell phones are common. Two-thirds of the population are said to have one, and almost everyone has access through a family member or friend. Zaca plans to glean revenue for itself by charging a fee to the farmer in the form of a subscription, or a per use basis. Companies would also pay to gain contact with the farmers in order to purchase what they grow.

Zaca is partnering with ITESM, one of Mexico?s most prestigious technical universities, and working with six implementation villages. The team visited remote areas to get feedback from the farmers. If the pilot project with ITESM-Zacatecas proves successful, Zaca will be deployed throughout Mexico. Eventually, the team wants to spread globally to distressed farming regions, and to India in particular where suicides by farmers are a major concern.