Leveraging Digital Solutions to Improve Farmers’ Yields in Egypt
Across Egypt, many farmers struggle with low productivity, poor quality of produce, and post-harvest losses, resulting in a significant loss in income. Even when crops are healthy, pests can destroy a large part of the harvest, incorrect harvesting techniques can bruise fruits and vegetables and packaging can impact the quality of the produce.
Shaaban Mohamed Ghallab, a farmer in Esna Village, Egypt, previously grew onions solely for his family’s consumption at home. Despite having an interest in expanding his production and selling beyond his home, he lacked the know-how in post-harvest handling to make the change.
Shaaban is just one of 132 onion farmers participating in the Feed the Future Egypt Food Security and Agribusiness Support (FAS) project that received hands-on technical training to acquire the knowledge and skills on post-harvest handling techniques as well as daily SMS text messages that serve as a timely reminder to follow through on practices learned during training.
Over the course of four weeks, participants were trained on best practices for the harvesting, sorting, and packing of onions and tomatoes for local and export markets. Key messages included; ensuring good hygiene during harvest and handling, minimizing irrigation directly prior to harvest to ensure strong stalks and prevent new root germination, integrated pest management to minimize damage from rats and crows, and proper drying of onions post-harvest. Shaaban was selected as a lead farmer, meaning he applied the best practices from the training and provided advice to farmers both in the program as well as in the broader community. As a trusted voice, farmers often looked to Shaaban for recommendations and reassurance regarding agricultural practices. “Farmers would call me and say, ‘Do we add this amount of fertilizer? Or, do we follow this practice? Yes or no?’” he said.
The FAS project also developed an information and communications technology (ICT) platform with the support of Souktel Digital Solutions to send follow-up text messages to all participating farmers. These messages were sent to remind farmers of best practices to follow leading up to harvest time as well as during harvest time to prompt farmers on how to maintain quality produce and how to correctly package produce for the markets. “Since most everyone has a phone and we do not have the ability to visit each farmer in-person daily, because of the distance in rural areas, this is an easy way to reach the farmer with key knowledge,” said Mahmoud El-Rady, the FAS Post-harvest Coordinator responsible for queuing up the messages in the system. “The SMS messages are written step by step as if someone is sitting right by the farmers side in the field,” he said.
In Shaaban’s case, one of the important reminders he received was right at harvest time, when the onion was ripe and ready to be picked. “They sent messages about how to look at the fruit and understand whether it is the right time to pick it and what is the right amount of water to give it at a specific time around harvest so it is not damaged. This is sensitive timing when every minute counts and we can’t always wait for someone to come to the field,” said Shaaban. As a lead farmer, Shaaban also encouraged other farmers to open the messages since they contained helpful information.
Since the launch of the platform, more than 4,800 messages have been sent to participating farmers that produce tomatoes, onions, and grapes. Recently, the FAS project began creating content surrounding post-harvest best practices for the cultivation of mangos. Since the platform has proven to be an effective method for communicating with farmers, this tool is being expanded to send messages on agricultural best practices during production as well as to share lessons on nutrition, particularly with women in the agro-processing workforce.
In his first year of working with the FAS project and producing onions for market sale, Shaaban sold 45 tons of onion, making a profit of 27,000 Egyptian pounds (~1,511 USD). Since Shaaban and his family were living with two other families, he used the profit from his onion sales to help purchase a new home for his own family. “I was very happy because my first goal was to just get the training on onion [production]. I did not expect that I would also get this profit,” he said. Shaaban is now looking to take the skills he’s learned and expand his farm to plant other crops that reap high profits, such as hibiscus, in addition to continuing with the production of onion.