Case study

Empowering smallholder farmers
in sub-Saharan Africa: 

Digitizing communications when digital infrastructure is lacking

Farmforce Connect is a mobile application developed by Farmforce, a Saas company working to create traceability all the way down to "food's first mile", meaning to farm level. Many of their solutions are operated by the organizations and larger companies that buy produce, but Farmforce Connect is different.

This solution was from the get-go meant to be in the hands of the smallholder farmers themselves, and this shift in target group had great impact on the design of the product.

The aims:

  • A mobile app to improve communication between farmers and their organization and ease the workload of extension officers. Extension officers spend a lot of time in the field communicating with farmers. 1 extension officer can be responsible for up to 700 farmers.

  • A tool to empower farmers and to create transparency:
    Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa typically do not have copies of their own records. Meaning they have no insight into their sales history, their loan balances, etc.

The challenges:

  • Most of this user group consist of farmers who are new to smartphones, who have limited digital skills and varying degrees of literacy.

  • Digital infrastructure is lacking in most places where these farmers live and work: The internet access is unstable and unpredictable, and they use low-spec phones.

  • Mobile data, what farmers refer to as "bundles", are a big expense to farmers and they carefully consider how they spend their data.

  • There is no universal process. Each crop, each value chain and each region operate slightly differently, and the app needed to accommodate for all this variety.

When I came into this project, a first version had already been developed. I quickly discovered that it had two main challenges:

  1. It did not adhere to current design standards or conventions.

  2. It had not been tested with the end-users.

This resulted in unclear calls to action, unclear communication, and an incoherent interface.

The first step in my plan to turn our starting point into a more functional and desirable product was to redesign the interface to be consistent and aligned with users expectations.

Step two was to test it with users.

The company was about to start a pilot in Malawi with the old design, and I got to tag along to test my new design. I was ready with my prototypes, wireframes, and interview guides. 


The new interface was more easily understood by the users, navigated successfully, and helped them better understand the benefits and solutions that the app aims to provide for them. 


After interviewing both farmers and leaders of farming cooperatives it was clear that the UI upgrade was much needed. Even more importantly, I got to confirm the 6 main use-cases for the app with these end-users. I also made sure to interview them on the broader topics of challenges they face in their line of work. This last point was important to create a foundation for later add-ons and new functionality as I wanted to make sure that this product will help solve actual problems for actual users. 

During this first fieldwork we collected much needed user insight, and got to face some of the assumptions about the user-group and their needs. Assumptions such as:

"The farmers need icons instead of labels".

Despite low literacy rates, most farmers navigated through the app using the labels rather than the icons.

"This app needs to be gamified in order to capture and
retain their attention".

Throughout our meetings, farmers stressed that they where doing farming as a business, they were professionals and needed an app to aid in their work. An overly gamified app would be considered unprofessional and maybe even insulting.  

This goes to show, you can never assume!

With our user insight fresh in mind, we implemented the new interface and upgraded some of the functionalities. 
We designed and developed the app to take the limited digital infrastructure into account and ensuring it could be used while offline. It was build to require little storage space and to function on low-spec phones by steering away from any unnecessary elements that would require much storage or data (such as use of images and animations). We also made sure the app would synchronize only once a day. This keeps farmers in the loop on relevant updates, but does not put strain on the data usage. Lastly, we included a download confirmation on any objects that are more data-heavy, such as training videos. This way farmers can both be and feel in control of their data bundles. 

A new challenge!

A new customer caught wind of Farmforce Connect and also wished to start a pilot project, under the condition that a reward module would be added to the app. And thus, I faced a new challenge: How to design a reward system that felt professional, inclusive, and was beneficial to both farmer and organization.

Here I used the full force of my team. Combining some of the bright minds from both the Product team and the Implementation team, we dove headfirst into ideation and iteration rounds.

Though we could not include users directly in this part of the process we got the second-best thing: The people from the organization who work closely with farmers on a day-to-day basis.

Through a series of both in-person and digital sessions we landed on a model combining a point and tier system, with specific goals that farmers work towards. Goals such as improving soil quality. 

The system had to work under the conditions of unstable digital infrastructure and take sociocultural norms into account. For these reasons we steered away from time-sensitive elements in the reward system, as well as ranking farmers against one another.

And this time, we were ahead of the game with our usability testing.

The second fieldwork was to be conducted in Kenya.

Would the UI developed for Malawi hold up in this new context?
Would farmers' challenges and needs for solutions be similar enough?
Would the rewards system really add value and stay respectful to farmers as business owners?

🎉 IT DOES!!! 🎉

"It is good, it is educative, it is a way forward"

"This is something good happening for the farmers.
Very very good indeed."  

"The app is good for us, to get what we want here,
we don't have to go to agriculture offices to ask them some questions.
You can take and leave what you want from the app, and I hope you are going to add more more more more."  

Knowledge is powerful

The app was very well received, as was the reward system.

It was not surprising that the communication elements of the app were popular. Simplifying communication between farmers and their organization was the central user need we had known about from the beginning of this project.

What was interesting was that farmers latched onto the financial pages as they did. For many having these records changes everything about their business. Knowledge is powerful, and having full insight into their history helps in many matters: In audits, in calculating expenses for upcoming seasons, in securing loans from banks.

"I'm very grateful for the app. For one, it is keeping records from when I entered the company, when I joined the company. All my records are there, my loans are there. I know my balance."

"My loan balance, my market history, what I've been selling, the kilos, payments, transactions, all of them are here." 

"It is very important because I do not need to ask them how things are going. No, I just go to the app, get the whole of the information. It is good record also to see, you know to see how much you got, how much you are using in the growing, the costs of payment of labour. Now you can see what kind of business you are doing." 

The second most important function to farmers was the Training Media page.

This gives access to video and audio files, as well as documents, on a range of topics. In-person training has its benefits, but travel is complicated and expensive for farmers situated remotely, which is most of them. Many never get to attend trainings.

Once downloaded onto the app, training files remain available to farmers, and they can always go back and look up information as needed. 

"Actually it is very important. Very important. Because many people don't get time to go to training areas, because of various other activities that we have." 

"These things are important. Very important actually. Most of the farmers usually would not be able to access this, not only to access but to KNOW these things. You know, knowledge is power. Once you have the knowledge, now you can keep on growing"  

There is more to be done. Changing the practices within global value chains takes time. Farmforce Connect will continue to develop to meet farmers where they are at, aid them in the challenges they are facing, and empower them to take more space in the value chain that ultimately starts and depends on them.

It has been a pleasure to work on this project, finding ways to work within the limitations that we cannot change, tackling challenges head on, and see the effects the solution creates.

Are you currently in a challenging project? 
Reach out and let me know if I can help with that.