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Reaching Farmers using Chat

Providing an effective extension service to millions of small family farms is a challenging task for government agencies and agribusinesses. In Indonesia, agribusinesses and government agencies would need 40,000 staff to tend to the 40 million farmers for just 30 minutes in each cropping season.

Digital technologies have long been lauded as the solution.  The assumption is, if businesses can make quality content, trading connections and finance available online it could reach millions of farmers, at a tiny marginal cost per farmer.  So the go-to solution has been to develop Android Apps that offer these services.

However, in practice, farmers in ASEAN have been poor users of these apps. While downloads for some apps have been impressive, repeat users are hard to capture. In an attempt to understand why and how we might improve extension, Grow Asia undertook farmer interviews in Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia to learn more.

We found that a solid portion of farmers are actively using their mobile phones to support their farming decisions. However, they don’t gravitate to apps. Instead, farmers want to learn from their peers, they want digital tools which build on trusted relationships, not circumvent them - so rather than using agronomy specific tools, farmers are repurposing existing social media platforms to stay informed.

​In the second session of the Grow Asia Digital Learning Series in 2020, we explored the exciting opportunity to use existing chat and social media platforms to reach farmers.

Click here to read the report that this session was based on, which was made possible by the support of the International Fund For Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Here is a recording of the webinar:

You can download the webinar slides here.


Guest Blog

The Power of Influencers

By Christina Lee, Account Manager, The Goat Agency

Marketers across the globe have been looking to Asia, and specifically Southeast Asia, as a dynamic region ripe with innovation that is causing us to rethink how brands and organizations communicate and engage their audiences. Due to mass internet adoption being a more recent trend in the region, a young, upwardly mobile population has grown up on the internet largely through mobile devices, entirely skipping the desktop PC era during which many in the West first experienced the internet and social media.

This phenomenon also applies to rural farming communities in Southeast Asia, where farmers have broadened their interpersonal communications to include chat apps on their smartphones (20-40% of ASEAN farmers are participating in chat rooms). However, the majority of official communications from governments and agricultural input companies to these farmers remain offline - through sending extension officers out into the field for face-to-face interactions. This is expensive, hard to measure, and dangerous in the time of COVID. Therefore an opportunity exists for governments and other stakeholders within the agricultural sector to shift the flow of information to farmers online and into the chat communities that have already formed.

As a starting point for making this shift, it’s important to consider the existing communications habits of smallholder farmers in ASEAN. Paul Voutier, Director of Knowledge and Innovation at Grow Asia, highlighted the idea of “lead farmers” who influence others in their community in his recent report Driving Agritech Adoption: Insights from Southeast Asia’s Farmers. This draws parallels to the idea of “influencers” in the brand and advertising world, who are defined as individuals who command a niche audience who follow them for recommendations, tips, and advice. At Goat Agency our approach to leveraging influencers for brands is “niche content to niche audiences at scale,” and the approach in an agricultural context would very much be the same.

In terms of identifying and recruiting influencers at scale, influencers cannot necessarily be created, as their influence relies on the power of the trust that their audience places in them and in their voice, and trust can really only be cultivated organically. However, the effectiveness of influencers can definitely be measured. At Goat Agency, we analyze influencers by looking at their presence on the platform (whether it’s Instagram, Youtube, Facebook or others), and calculating their engagement with their audience through a series of metrics (such as engagement, impressions, view through rate, and clicks which are reported by the platform, and through various tools such as link tracking). In a more informal chat scenario, chat platforms do not report this data, so link tracking and other forms of input such as surveys, polls, and forms that are embedded into the chat content become the only way to measure effectiveness.

What are some other challenges with this approach, particularly within the context of the agriculture sector? Zooming into a real-life example in the agricultural industry, the case study by East-West Seeds in Cambodia that was shared during the recent Grow Asia Digital Learning Series: Reaching Farmers using Chat provides several key learnings:

  • The first is that literacy levels may vary among farmers, which makes alternate mediums such as videos and features such as voice messaging take a more important role. However, as opposed to written content, video incurs much higher production costs, and both video and voice messages are not able to be indexed like written text (so members of the group are not able to use a search tool to search for it if they want to refer back to it at a later point). Moreover, some farmers in rural areas may have difficulty loading video content due to data limitations, and voice messaging is also only available on certain platforms and not others.

  • The second challenge reported in the case study was that knowledge uptake was not easy (with the team needing to follow up via phone regularly). Eventually as digital literacy increases and farmers become more familiar with the platforms, other more time-effective measurement tools may be able to replace phone calls. For example, platform features such as polls and input forms can be used to measure engagement and uptake. In addition, some platforms such as Zoom allow for large-scale group calls, which could be used for “Town-Hall” type calls which may be a more effective way of communicating and gauging sentiment as opposed to individual phone calls.

  • The third learning from the case study is that there is a need to 1) support and train more “influencers” who take a more active role in group communications, and 2) encourage more input dealers to utilize social media. The common theme across both these challenges is getting both groups to buy into the value proposition of participating in the group. The way to do so is to track and measure the before/after effect - for example, East West Seeds mentioned an input dealer who reported a 4% increase in sales outreach even during COVID-19. Collecting and publishing more statistics such as these will signal the value of participating in the group.

With the fragmented social landscape in Asia, no single app is dominant, so it is important to research and localize your communications strategy. Here are 3 more best practices to allow your organization to best leverage chat as a medium:

  1. Have a transparent and open sign up process. Make it easy, open, and accessible to subscribe to your chat communications.

  2. Have a chat moderator or leader who is part of the community. They will be more trusted by their peers and able to translate your directives into local nuances and on-the-ground happenings.

  3. Measure engagement by publishing regular calls-to-action into the chat group. Create a 2-way channel of communication with your audience by publishing polls, landing pages, forms, and other ways of collecting their input, and use a link tracker to measure click-throughs.

    1. As you scale, test different versions of copy and/or visuals by implementing A/B testing. Measure the success of each variant by looking at click-through rates.



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