ICT joins the fight against fraud in agriculture

Fake agricultural inputs are causing food insecurity and making farmers poorer, say experts. Counterfeit 'agro inputs' are a huge problem in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. They affect germination and crop health, often putting lives at risk. Now, however, the innovative use of ICT offers new hope in the fight against this illicit industry.

"Farmers are losing millions because of fake inputs which affect productivity," says Bruce Kisitu, the Ugandan co-ordinator of a project to combat counterfeiting. "This leads to poor quality produce, the inability for farmers to access competitive markets, and eventually food insecurity. Counterfeiting keeps smallholders in the vicious circle of poverty."

Kisitu tells the story of a smallholder in Uganda who bought some groundnut seed to plant in her farm. As the head of the household, she relied on what she could grow to feed her family and pay for her children's education. When she dug the soil at harvest time, she found that hardly any groundnuts had grown. She had been sold counterfeit seed.

"The lady nearly died of stress and kept wondering how she and her family were going to survive," says Kisitu, who claims that the counterfeit industry now accounts for a staggering 30 percent of 'agro input' sales in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a trade which, in the words of Felix Jumbe, Executive Director of the Seed Trade Association of Malawi, "makes the poor poorer".

Kisitu believes that innovative solutions are urgently needed to combat this growing problem. He is pioneering a Ugandan project to eliminate counterfeit agro inputs "using SMS on the mobile phone", which has been developed by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) in partnership with CropLife Africa-Middle East and CropLife Uganda.

The project ensures that every pack of seeds a farmer buys is marked with a scratch-panel, which gives a pack number and information about the product. Farmers then send the pack number by SMS to a local short code, which a few seconds later returns a verification of authenticity.

"The beauty is the users or farmers authenticate the product themselves," says Kisitu. Self-verified products give farmers confidence and security – just two of the reasons, Kisitu believes, for the 10 percent increase in market share the specially-marked packs have gained over competing brands.

Requiring only basic mobile connectivity and technology that is already familiar in rural communities, the low-cost solution could be heading for success across the ACP region.

If that is so, agricultural fraud in Uganda could soon become a thing of the past.

The project will be presented at the ICT4Ag Conference, which will take place from November 4 – 8, 2013 in Kigali (Rwanda).

Published in cio.co.ke, on 4 nov 2013