Jamie Holmes of The Atlantic Monthly flags a staggering statistic: “Feature mobiles have spread into some of the most remote areas of the globe, with 48 million people now with cell phones but no electricity, and by next year, 1.7 billion with cell phones but no bank account, according to one estimate.”

He further notes the game-changing impact the proliferation of text message-enabled phones is having on the way business is done in the developing world:

Nokia’s “Ovi Life Tools” offer agricultural, educational, and health information via SMS in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and China. Txteagle, a business began by MIT’s Nathan Eagle, now uses SMS surveys to perform research into emerging markets, paying for completed surveys in mobile airtime. In time, the impact of such services on local economies could be tremendous.

With mobile money, the possibilities multiply. Are there services that help list and sell products via SMS? You bet. Pay taxes by SMS? Yup. Buy clean water at mobile-payment vending machines? Sure. How about having a crop insurance payout sent directly to mobiles based on automated rainfall measurements? That’s been done, too.

Last year, 4.16 billion users made SMS the most popular data channel in the world. An estimated 6.1 trillion texts were sent, up from 1.8 trillion in 2007. And while the proportion of customers using SMS for more than simple messaging is still small, in poor nations these services are already changing the nature of commerce, crime, reporting news, political participation, and governing.

A retailer displays his mobile phone, after updating his inventory. It now shows he has 38 bags of Urea 1kg for 130NGN.

You already know how our system works for the individual farmer shopping for Notore’s fertilizers. But how do Notore’s accredited retailers update their available inventory in the system, so that the farmer can review it and make a purchase? What equipment does it require? A computer with an Internet connection? A scanner? A smart phone?

The answer: none of the above. All a retailer pre-approved by Notore  needs is access to the system and a mobile phone with the ability to send text messages; the process is, more or less, the same as it is for the farmer.

(Note: Only retailers pre-approved by Notore are allowed access to the backend to upload or update inventory.)

Once the retailer uploads his/her inventory of Notore products into the system via texting (SMS), there are two ways it’s updated. If a purchase is made via mobile phone using MoBiashara, then the inventory is automatically updated. But if a purchase is made in the retailer’s store, it must be manually updated by the retailer.

Here are the two easy steps for manually updating the inventory:

1) The retailer sends a message with the fertilizer’s product ID and the updated quantity and price, if needed.

2) A response is returned showing the updated quantities and pricing.

This simple process allows for real-time updating, which in turn allows farmers to have a full picture of exactly what Notore fertilizers the retailer has on offer, in what quantity, and at what cost. In other words, the mobile phone is the store.

Another benefit: Since everyone along the distribution chain is using the same SMS-based process, it creates an invaluable continuity between Notore, Notore’s accredited retailer, and the farmer. Because they’re all on the same page, there’s no mystery and, thus, no doubt. And when it comes to business, there’s no more valuable commodity than trust. We’re helping to create and facilitate trust and understanding with MoBiashara.

Our outreach personnel have been dispatched to teach retailers, distributors, and consumers (in the case of the Notore program, farmers) on how to use the system and walk them through the process, where and when necessary.

One of our chief missions is to offer the un-banked a safe, an efficient, and a cashless alternative to purchasing life’s necessities. Why? Because their reliance on cash exposes them to multiple risks, including: cash can get stolen, cash can be lost or spent on something other than what was intended.

For this particular pilot, we’ve partnered with a Nigerian payment company that has been given an approval-in-principle to operate a mobile payment scheme, which will provide farmers participating in our pilot the ability to purchase scratch cards with the monetary equivalent of the cash they would have paid for their fertilizer.  These cards provide stored value-like a store gift card-and can be used as payment for fertilizer. This eliminates the need for farmers and retailers to carry cash.

Armed with this scratch card and access to  our MoBiashara platform, a farmer can query the inventory of a supplier, select the desired product, and make a purchase-all from the comfort of their  mobile phone. The only thing left for them to do is pick up the product, or have it delivered.

We’ll be talking about this process in this space in the days and weeks to come. Stay tuned…

VPs listen as SlimTrader team members demonstrate the MoBiashara service in a makeshift training center.

Now that we’ve provided background on the area in which we’re working and detailed how the MoBiashara service helps farmers connect with Notore, let’s talk about the implementation process.

The setting: Jalingo, the capital of Nigeria’s Taraba state. The participants: 17 Village Promoters (VP), representing eight local governments; two representatives of Notore; and three Slimtrader team members. The goal: to make MoBiashara that much better going forward for Notore and the farmers in Taraba, as well as our other clients in our other areas of operation.

MoBiashara helps distribute crucial Notore fertilizers from trading centers in Taaraba (pictured) to farmers.

After demonstrating MoBiashara to the VPs, they noted a variety of benefits, which, in the aggregate, had the ability to positively, and profoundly, impact the means of distribution. This would have a number of equally positive-and yes, profound-effects:

  • Despite the distribution challenges the localities are currently facing, MoBiashara engenders efficient supply chain management.
  • The VPs felt MoBiashara would help them increase  sales of Notore products among their existing farmers, who would in turn benefit by having higher crop yields, among other things.
  • MoBiashara drives consumer demand by communicating the availability of Notore’s product.

So, as indicated by the final bullet point, by allowing farmers to query Notore’s inventory from their mobile phones before journeying to a distribution center, MoBiashara is empowering them. We’re saving them time, which for “base of the pyramid” consumers is literally money.  In the process, we’re creating a positive feedback loop which travels up and down the supply chain, and beyond. Notore widens its market penetration. Farmers know what and where to get the products they need. And everyone from the bus drivers who bring the farmers to the distribution centers to the shop owners who sell them lunch, benefits.

One final point: In order to make the querying of Notore’s inventory even more accessible and efficient, the VPs stressed that the service must be in the local dialect of Hausa. (Deploying the service in any other dialect in any other African state is 100 percent doable.  Flexibility of performance is yet another benefit of MoBiashara.) By traveling to Taaraba and working directly with both our client (Notore) and our client’s clients (the VPs and the farmers they represent), the SlimTrader team was able to identify, and implement, a crucial component to the MoBiashara platform there. Being hands-on counts.

Here’s a step-by-step demonstration of how farmers use our mobile commerce platform to purchase products from Notore :

As you can see, traveling long distances and waiting in long lines to purchase much-needed fertilizers are eliminated. What’s more, farmers can now query Notore’s inventory to determine what products are available, and where.  This saves farmers time and money, not to mention the physical hardship associated with travel. That our service has a universal application throughout multiple sectors, from agriculture to travel, only increases its value to Base-of-the-Pyramid consumers and the companies attempting to reach them.

We’ve learned a lot while working with farmers to implement the MoBiashara service on behalf of, and in conjunction with, our partner and client Notore in Northern Nigeria. As we suspected, the supply chain connecting farmers, merchants, and agro-dealers needs to be strengthened, for the benefit of all.

Which means our pilot program in the region has delivered yet more proof of the efficacy and universal application of our concept. By providing farmers with a mobile platform that allows them to query the inventory of, and then make purchases from, suppliers via text-messages not only works; it’s also necessary.

In short: MoBiashara provides the missing link in the supply chain. But in order to understand the benefits our service offers the agriculture sector in the area, first, we needed to understand how it functioned.  To that end, SlimTrader’s CMO Betty Radier, who’s leading the demonstration and implementation of our mobile service there, made the following observations during her trip to the city of Yola:

  • Farmers use irrigation techniques, laying pipes from the river and using pumps to ensure water flows to their crops. Because of these methods, farming isn’t seasonal; it’s year-round.
  • Farm inputs are subsidized by the government
  • Farming is used for both subsistence and trade.
  • A large majority of the people at the “base of the pyramid” engage in farming activities.
  • The area’s staples include rice, yams, and cassava.

Below, you’ll find two photos illustrating farming techniques and the potential to enhance yields in Yola. Tomorrow, we’ll take an in-depth look at the official launch of the MoBiashara service in the region.

The mouth of a pipeline used to irrigate rice fields in Yola.

The current crop yield in Yola can be greatly enhanced by Notore fertilizers--a transaction that MoBiashara helps facilitate.

As we expand, so does recognition about the good work SlimTrader is doing. Case in point: Our founder and CEO, Femi Akinde, was interviewed by another major U.S. media outlet. This time, he sat down with Forbes to discuss our “promising start-up.” The video below is well worth your time and attention.

In addition, CMO Betty Radier traveled from our Kenya office to the Northern Nigerian state of Taraba, where she and her staff are training Village Promoters (VPs) on our MoBiashara service. These seminars are part of a pilot program with our client and partner Notore-an “agro-allied and chemical company” dedicated to  “championing the African Green Revolution by supporting local food production.” Such an effort, of course, is what SlimTrader was founded to facilitate. Which is why Betty felt it was so important to personally attend the demonstrations, community outreach being a cornerstone of the SlimTrader mission.

MoBiashara allows the VPs and the farmers they represent to use their mobile phones to purchase much-needed products, such as fertilizer from Notore. As Forbes describes the service’s myriad applications:

A traveler in Lagos, Nigeria can enter the text shortcode for a bus ticket and get a reply with a schedule and prices. He texts back to book the time he wants and gets a reply back with the reference number he needs to pay for the ticket via his mobile wallet. Same goes for a farmer who wants to buy bags of fertilizer. Or a doctor who wants verified medicine for his clinic.

A former Microsoft Partner Services lead for Western, Eastern, and Central Africa, Betty has filed a detailed report on her experiences working with 17 village promoters from the following areas: Wukari, Ibi, Bali, Gassol, Lau, Takun, Ardo- Kola Zing, and Donga. We’ll be sharing details of her findings over the next several days. In the meantime, please enjoy this sampling of photos, complete with captions:

Village Promoters, along with MoBiashara and Notore staff members.

Betty shows the Village Promoters how to use our MoBiashara service.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.