Data-driven growth: How to engage with over 20,000 farmers and create the perfect blend

Caitlin Shaw avatar


Meridian FSU screenshoot of Smallholdr Wed Dashboard. Data is viewed in real time as it is uploaded by 100+ extension workers across Malawi

Caitlin ShawImagine the challenge of managing 120 field staff working with 22,000 farmers across a whole country… We are delighted that Caitlin Shaw, Manager of Meridian’s Farm Services Unit (FSU) in Malawi, has written us a guest blog this month to explain how Smallholdr has done exactly that, capturing rich records of all farmer interactions and giving her real-time data with which to efficiently manage her operation. We first described the system two years ago in this Smallholdr blog, so it is fantastic to get an update and see how the benefits are really playing out.

Introduction to Meridian & FSU

Meridian is a leading agricultural input supplier operating across four countries in Southern Africa: Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, we have a network of over 115 rural retail outlets (Farmers World and Agora) which stock agricultural products such as quality seed and fertiliser. We rely on profitable farmers in order to have a profitable business, therefore it’s a win-win for us to support smallholder farmers who make up the majority of our customer base!

An FSU extension worker interviews a farmer outside one of the Farmer World shops
An FSU extension worker interviews a farmer outside one of the Farmer World shops

Through the Farm Services Unit (FSU), Meridian is breaking with tradition and breaking away from the typical model of segmented extension and customer service delivery. Traditionally extension services are provided by the public sector, whether through government or NGOs. On the other hand, sales are usually generated via salesmen with a sleazy reputation. Through the FSU, Meridian merges these two roles by deploying extension officers who act as both education and marketing agents. FSU’s extension efforts are ‘smarter’ because they understand both the needs of the customer and the agronomics behind the products. Meridian appreciates that a smallholder farmer’s greatest return on investment (and often largest investment) is on fertiliser. By taking this dual approach of extension and sales, FSU extension officers can demonstrate to a farmer that Meridian products give them the best return for their investment.

What we needed in a solution

The FSU integrates traditional extension services into a commercial business unit without compromising value. We pride ourselves on being data-driven in all aspects of our work including our research on new products and improved practices, understanding our customers, and strategic decision-making. With over 100 officers spread all across Malawi – interacting with 22,000+ small, rural farmers – you can imagine that capturing, organising, and harnessing that data is quite a challenge!

Extension Services: FSU Regional Manager Kumbu Munthali conducts a farmer training in the field
Regional Manager Kumbu Munthali conducts a farmer training in the field

For this reason we went hunting for a data management system that could fit our needs. Our laundry list of functions when we started out was long (and ever-growing). We looked for the following top features in our SAAS provider:

As an extension department we are a people-led entity first and foremost! Therefore we needed a system that could serve as a performance management and monitoring tool. We needed a system that could enable us to track extension officer progress against targets in real time without the delays and burdens of paper forms of yore. The nature of the Smallholdr system makes it so that all data must be attributed or linked to a certain entity. For example, all production information must be linked to an individual farmer. This makes it very easy for us to track year-on-year profiles on production history and input purchases, giving us a new level of individual customer insight which we never had before.

We also needed a system that was adaptable and could respond quickly to new features or surveys. In the past other data collection platforms had very rigid forms meaning that once a questionnaire was deployed it could not be changed. Smallholdr and the Survey Builder put data collection right at our fingertips – literally! It is very easy for us to make changes to surveys without worrying about multiple forms or gaps.

As a commercial entity of small margins, we prioritise the cost-effectiveness of any investment. Without an extension department (equipped with tablets) we would need to outsource data collection to an external firm with their own enumerators. Not only would we need to pay for the time of supervisors and enumerators, we would also need to take the time to bring the new firm up to speed with the operations and goals of the company. This adds up very quickly and would be a recurring cost for each new survey, no matter how small. Pushing all surveys out through the Smallholdr for multiple stakeholders whether it is for marketing, operations, or extension means that we save a significant amount on data collection and don’t compromise on quality.

FSU and the critical role of data

Caitlin with Martin Tsere, FSU’s data analyst, at one of the demonstration plots
Caitlin with Martin Tsere, FSU’s data analyst, at one of the demonstration plots

The mission of FSU is ultimately to bring data-driven solutions to smallholders including new products and improved practices. Every season we run a large-scale nation-wide trial plot program to test the impact of these innovations, for example for our customised fertiliser blends. In order to prove the effectiveness of new blends we need to study the effects on yield and farmer gross margins. The only possible way to collect, standardise and organise this information is through a structured data collection tool. Through Smallholdr, we can create ‘cropping profiles’ for each trial plot to capture rainfall, germination, and input use information. Through this system, we are able to analyse yield data at the end of the season which allows us to measure the impact of the blends. The data behind the trials is a huge reason why we were able to release these customised blends onto the market for the first time last season!

The bulk of the commercial value of FSU to the larger company has been from being able to adapt to management/strategic questions and do ‘push-down’ surveys within a limited timeframe. Just recently, we have utilised the Smallholdr app to conduct a survey on customer preferences – what factors most heavily influence a farmer’s decision to purchase fertiliser? What about seed? Where does a farmer get his/her information on agri-inputs? We conducted over 2,000 surveys in less than one week and we able to easily analyse the data and present results to management so that the results can be used for sourcing and stocking inputs for the upcoming season. Without such a system we would not be able to adapt to requests as easily!

FSU’s vision

We are always aiming to broaden the scope of services and products we can offer to our customers. The fertiliser market is extremely competitive and commoditised, so providing new products alongside extension support is a key way to differentiate our brand from our competitors. We have recently introduced low-cost soil analysis to give even small farmers access to more precise input recommendations, and this information will be built into the Smallholdr app to provide geo-located soil advice. We have also rolled out Smallholdr’s perimeter mapping feature, which captures field boundaries and calculates accurate plot sizes to help farmers work out the right quantities of inputs to buy. There are always new ideas to explore, and we are in ongoing discussions with the Smallholdr team to develop further innovations that could enhance the system in support of FSU’s vision.

If you would like to learn more about how Smallholdr could deliver similar benefits to your agricultural project then please get in touch!

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2 responses to “Data-driven growth: How to engage with over 20,000 farmers and create the perfect blend”

  1. Denis avatar

    Great innovative initiative.

  2. Sunil Chavan avatar

    Great efforts by FSU. Same model can be replicated for Indian small land holding farmers.
    Keep going.