Follow-up on Liberian Markets Parts 1 & 2

After my recent posts with regards to quantity measures, scales, weights, packaging etc. I have been alterted to the article by Kiringai Kamau in the recent issue of Information Technology in Developing Countries, Volume 18, No. 3, October 2008. Kiringai Kamau describes the impact of an electronic measurement system at a milk procurement station in Githunguri, Kenya. The author also mentions many concerns, vested interests and conflicts which influence the actions of both farmers (sellers) and procurers (buyers) in the absence of an indisputable measurement system.

“As you may agree, farmers’ earnings are not always proportionate to what is paid to them by the processors to whom they sell their produce. The processor is normally paid more and can at his whim inflate prices to suit his financial appetite, thereby creating inflation that affects those outside the processing arena. To make matters even worse, the poor farmer normally delivers more produce but the records are falsified by middlemen or intermediaries who collect the produce from farmers, and then deliver or sell whatever they have collected from the farmer to the processors. Unfortunately, the farmer is hostage to this system and has nowhere to take his produce besides to the same unscrupulous clerk or middleman who steals from him with impunity.

When the clerks from procuring intermediaries weigh the produce, they traditionally record a farmer’s delivery on a manual delivery ticket. If we take the case of milk which is our latest sector as a company to focus automation on, an illiterate farmer will lose milk:

  • At the weighing point where the scale may be deliberately mis-calibrated, and is always rounded downwards, and
  • At the produce delivery transcription level.

This inefficiency and resultant loss of effective weights against which payment is made, is repeated at every transcription point where there are clerks, before the actual final record against which payment is made has been captured. When the organization procuring the produce is a farmer cooperative as happens in the cases we have been dealing with, the managers may know that there is a problem of this nature but they too are held hostage by the clerks and their system of operating.

The challenge lies in the fact that most farmers are illiterate and may not be able to tell when clerks cheat on the reading of the scale or if they transcribe the wrong reading from the scale for their records. Indeed, even when they can read or write, the clerk can choose to take the wrong weight against which the literate farmer may have no recourse. Unfortunately, whatever the error, farmers have nowhere to turn to and are forced to develop some blind faith in the representative of the organization that procures their agricultural produce out of which they get their payment. Otherwise they will not be able to sell to anyone at all! Smallholder farmers may not complain, and when they do, they will not let the fraudulent clerk know in order to avert being blacklisted.

Even when the clerk is honest, the common analog scale normally used by the procuring institutions is calibrated to the nearest 0.5 of a kilogram. This means that in the case where the analog scale is used, clerks still have room to either round the readings downwards or upwards depending on their own whim. At times, records are lost by the farmers so that whatever is finally paid to them may not necessarily be what is due to them but rather what the clerks in the purchasing organization may decide is the correct rounded approximation.

Everything therefore relies on a procurement-payment system that is controlled by people other than the resource owner – the farmer. The extra weighed produce deliveries (derived from the aggregation of rounded readings or deliberate transcription errors) is then transferred through records so that payments are made to a rogue collaborating farmer who in the end oils the chain of thieving clerks, based on whatever may be their agreed formula. Though the farmers and managers in the procuring organization know that this scenario holds, they normally have no way of catching the thieves. Promoting more productivity at the farm level does not help in empowering poor rural communities, where wealth is most needed. And no matter what effort is made, poor rural farmers continue being poor. The process based technology that we evolved addresses this.

Our technology innovation, which is a digital handheld scale, weighs to the closest 0.01 of a kilogram of agricultural produce. Using electronic storage that downloads the data to a centralized database, and linking the scale memory to an electronic load cell, the scale is able to:

  • Weigh accurately to the nearest 0.01 of a Kilogram
  • Store farmer records in a Read Only Memory
  • Get powered through stored-electrical-power to make the scale memory/storage operate away from grid power
  • Through the power of a customized firmware designed to mimic the operations of the activities being addressed, automatically capture farmer records and their weighments
  • Capture and transfer farmer records on a farmer smartcard that can be used in input stores and retail outlets with credit arrangements with the produce buying institution/cooperative

Interfacing this scale with a computer enables the data from the scale to be transferred to an application that then updates records pertaining to payrolls for farmers and the procuring company’s internal staff. Farmer records are captured into the scale at the beginning of a field activity so that only real and authentic farmers can weigh their produce using the custom digital scale. This then removes the need for manual records and the control that has hitherto been in the hands of clerks that sell excess milk or tea in their own names or jointly with others.

This is then followed by data encryption so that data is not intelligible to the office clerks within the procuring institution. This forestalls any potential for data manipulation through manual effort. Electronic data capture then ensures that the processing of the farmers’ produce deliveries is done and records updated on a daily basis. A portable thermal printer that is strapped on the weighing clerk’s belt allows records that a farmer who needs a printed delivery ticket (a receipt of his milk delivery) to be printed. Data so collected and downloaded into a centralized server makes it available for remote querying by other parties such as the farm owner or management so long as such parties have the necessary authentication. Where the futures price is known, a farmer can take credit based on his produce delivery or obtain credit from a collaborating store using the farmer smartcard.

The above model has been under implementation for the last eight years in one of the dairy smallholder cooperatives, Githunguri Dairy, which started in year 2000 when they could only pay their farmers Ksh. 5,000,000 a month. Today they pay their farmers in excess of Ksh. 120,000,000 a month with an average monthly income of Ksh. 8,500 a farmer, an income that is close the basic salary of a teacher. The impact of this effort has been that the chairman of this cooperative was rewarded in the last general election with a vote to represent the constituency where the cooperative is based. The campaign story was the exemplary leadership that he has demonstrated through his strengthening of income generation ability that the smallholder farming community enjoys. They laud the transparent handling of milk records and payment which we know is associated more with the technology than the man. But indeed it is his far sighted thinking and the desire for an impact that he allowed technology to be tried in a rural area.”


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