Digital Agricultural Platforms and Cotton Farmers in Zambia

Small-scale farming creates more jobs than any other sector in Zambia—cotton production alone employs over 300,000 smallholder farmers. However, agricultural value chains are often disconnected and fragmented, providing little transparency into how inputs and goods move through them. This limits farmers’ ability or incentive to invest in agricultural practices that produce greater and better-quality yields. It also limits the choices of consumers who are willing to pay more for more responsibly produced products.

Traceability addresses both ends of the problemrewarding farmers while providing transparency for responsible consumption.

In 2021, Mitsui & Co. and ETG brought Dalberg on board to help design and implement a proof of concept to showcase the potential of digital innovation in agriculture. This became Farmers 360° Link, an agricultural technology initiative to connect Zambian cotton farmers with the global apparel market. 

The proof of concept, based in Zambia’s East and Central provinces, focused on transitioning farmers from paper to digital record keeping, providing e-extension services through mobile phones, and introducing agro-input finance to enhance cotton production.

Dalberg drew on its extensive experience supporting similar projects to understand farmer needs, identify ecosystem actors, and uncover value chain opportunities across different regions. 

Over 1,065 smallholder farmers and 25 agents were trained in using technology for improving farming operations. Farmers, particularly women with family commitments, appreciated the easy access to agricultural information through mobile phone training. As an implementing partner of Farmers 360° Link pointed out, “Providing phones has been quite exciting for farmers and cotton buyers. Learning content in local languages helps [farmers] to face challenges such as pest management and timely land preparation.” The cotton company and its agents, meanwhile, found the digital framework efficient and secure.

The success of the proof of concept led Mitsui to set up operations in Zambia and scale up Farmers 360° Link to benefit 3,000 farmers and 60 agents. Bruce, a young farmer from Nguzu village in Mumbwa district in Zambia, expressed his appreciation for the weekly audio lessons on best farming practices available on his mobile phone: “Now I know what to do best for planting, weed control, pest control, etc.” By following the lessons and suggestions in the program, Bruce was able to increase his yield and was inspired to increase the volume of his cotton planting. 

A significant development came in 2023, when multi-brand retailer Ron Herman released its women’s collection under its original label featuring Cotton Chiko Africa, the first cotton brand of the Farmers 360° Link project. By providing visibility to farmers’ life stories and ensuring direct communication between farmers and buyers, Farmers 360° Link creates a new consumption experience for both sides. The details of each farmer’s production contract—agricultural inputs such as seeds and pesticides, farming methods, harvest volume, subsequent processing routes, dates, and time—are managed on a blockchain, allowing for transparency in tracing of the final product from farm to store. Buyers can check the producer of the cotton used to make the clothing on an app, and the producers receive notification when a garment made from their cotton is purchased. The partnership is able to help retailers command premium prices to reinvest in local communities. 

As demonstrated by Farmers 360° Link, digital agriculture platforms (DAPs) play a key role in addressing systemic issues for smallholder farmers around market access, skills development, and access to capital, as well as advancing climate and gender goals.

Mitsui is exploring other products and services to enhance opportunities for farmers, such as regenerative agriculture practices and carbon credit generating activities, and considering the expansion of Farmers 360° Link beyond Zambia.

For Dalberg, this project underscored the importance of agility and flexibility in the kinds of expertise we provided—in this case, human-centered design in the initial research phase, deep understanding of local context for the pilot implementation, and a data science team for support and thought partnership in developing the right digital platform. Farmers 360° Link also illustrated that, with consistent leadership across various phases of the engagement, we were able to bring strategic perspectives and knowledge of how the client works to each step of the implementation process.

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