Smallholdr’s mobile app for GNA’s Private Extension Agents (PEAs): supporting real time data collection at lead farmer level

Karen Smith avatar


Seed multiplication by smallholder farmers is the core business model of Good Nature Agro (GNA), a Zambian seed company based in Chipata near the western border of the country. It therefore follows that provision of hands-on extension is a vital part of the company’s business; multiplying certified seed requires a very specific set of farming skills and it is not something an average Zambian smallholder will have engaged in before. GNA therefore invests in a very rigorous training programme to ensure that farmers are equipped to be able to multiply the seed (soya, groundnuts, beans and cowpea) provided to them by the company.

With their ambitious growth plans, GNA recognised that real time data management enabled by digital technology could give them a significant edge on the management of their outgrowers and seed multiplication processes. They contracted Smallholdr in the summer of 2018, choosing us because we have a flexible and collaborative approach to providing data management tools and processes that are tailored to GNA’s specific needs. We design and deliver our software remotely, so our team has not had to visit GNA, but when I was in the region this November I couldn’t miss the opportunity to pay a visit. As well as a tour around their warehouses in Chipata, I went on a field trip to the village where GNA first began – Pwata in Kasenengwa District – about an hour and a half’s drive west of Chipata.

Botany examining a potential solar charger for
the PEAs’ mobile phones

My host for the trip, Botany Hang’ombe, is GNA’s Training Manager and is responsible for curricula development and farmer training as well as monitoring and evaluation for the company. He is very excited about the introduction of Smallholdr’s mobile app and web-based data management system to GNA and can see numerous benefits that it will bring. The information captured will, for example, make it significantly easier to supply detailed and timely production data to investors. Farmer loans will be closely monitored and business planning will become much easier as crop movements can be traced from field to warehouse and beyond. Quality data on each farmer’s seed and performance will also be captured and verified in the system.

GNA field operations revolve around their eleven Field Supervisors who are each responsible for 10 a number of (very aptly!) named Private Extension Agents (PEAs). What we have found fascinating is GNA’s two tier extension approach, with the empowerment of PEAs, who are highly capable Lead Farmers, to use our app to manage and capture a level of detail from the day to day engagement with farmers (at a ratio of 1 PEA : 40 farmers) than that of a more typical extension worker can (e.g. 1 : 200). It is clear that the amount of GNA’s investment in training and management of their field staff GNA has been a key factor in their success to date. Each PEA receives facilitation and extension, group organization and agronomic skills trainings each year to help them support their farmers and the Field Supervisors check in with their PEAs to support them on a weekly basis. GNA have designed a thorough process to form farmer groups and each farmer is rated by the company in a five part assessment each year. This ensures that any farmers that don’t have the interest or ability to be a GNA supplier are let go early on, and those who prove keen and successful can graduate to larger volumes with the opportunity to earn more income.

everything will be on my phone in my pocket

The PEAs I met were all eager to be receiving their GNA phones for the first time. Botany told me that their experience had shown that the farmers look after their phones carefully, knowing that after a ‘loan period’ the phones would become theirs. I watched Tedson Tembo taking his fellow PEAs on a refresher training of the Smallholdr app (below). At the end of the training I was curious to ask the PEAs how they saw the app changing their way of working. One PEA explained that it would be great not having to lug around a backpack full of paper – “everything will be on my phone in my pocket”! Another said she had been really frustrated by a farmer the previous year who kept saying she had not visited him. However, the Smallholdr app would capture each training visit – with the GPS location – proving she had been to see him!

Tedson Tembo trains extension team (PEAs) on using Smallholdr mobile app
Tedson Tembo trains extension team (PEAs) on using Smallholdr mobile app

GNA will use the Smallholdr Work Plan functionality to task their Field Supervisors and PEAs through the year. We are pleased to also be implementing some of our more advanced features for the company – for example, the ability to map the perimeter and calculate each farmer’s land holding size. This sort of information will enhance production planning and help GNA to help farmers to manage their land better. We will also be rolling out our seed inspection module, helping PEAs to efficiently monitor a seed plot for offtypes and pests and diseases. This information will be invaluable back at the GNA base – with managers able to monitor trends and anticipate production volumes.

Every client offers us new insights into how agricultural SMEs can engage with smallholder farmers for mutual benefit, and we love the concept of the PEAs! GNA’s forward thinking and high touch approach is clearly paying off and Smallholdr’s systems will further tighten their production management and crop data to reduce costs and improve product quality, as well as introduce a level of traceability up the supply chain that was not previously possible.