Back in late 2014, I decided to become a LGT VP ICats Fellow and part of an agribusiness company, which seeks to help increase the income and consequently, the quality of life of southerner farmers in the Philippines by planting cacao. The deal with these farmers is simple: they plant cacao today, we stand in KFI to buy their beans back. Apart from my “hidden” motivation to get free hot chocolate from time to time, I set out on a mission to help the company capture on-the-ground-data in the easiest and least costly way possible.

I set foot in Davao with a framework in mind that the usual issue of data capture was simply asking the right questions. Having a very corporate framework that the usual causes why companies fail to get the right information at the right time was because people weren’t doing the “right” thing, I went on a series fieldworks to get a sense of the landscape. Little did I know I was inching towards an unusually difficult challenge.

 

Lesson 1: Do some fieldwork to get a sense of the landscape. Do not assume internet connection.

At the onset, my boss and I were thinking about different technologies we could tap into to make data collection faster, easier and cheaper. There were a lot of free an easy-to-use surveying apps we could take advantage of. Back in the office, we were sure that the online sending of data from cacao farms were very intuitive and direct to the point. And why wouldn’t they be? Our field technicians will just have to type in their data responses and send them via Internet. Problem solved.

We couldn’t be more wrong.

It turns out, the solution could work, but the Internet wasn’t there to join us. You see, a lot of our cacao growers are located in rural and hard to reach areas which unfortunately, we didn’t take into account much the challenges that went with the rural landscape.

 

Lesson 2: Do talk with your on-the-ground users. Do not simply deploy processes and gadgets to them.

A huge part of our learning and success came from obtaining feedback directly from our field technicians (FTs), KFI employees who serve as our frontliners to our cacao farmers. What proved helpful for us was to come up with a pilot approach of our mobile-based solution, get some selected field technicians to use it and get their feedback. And by feedback we mean not simply asking Yes or No answers (or worse “do you or do you not like it?”) from them. Much of the valuable insights we got were through asking open-ended questions such as “what do you think about this solution?” It’s in the conversations that we mined a lot of solution leads.

A temptation we had to consistently fight off from time to time was the tendency to simply say “Hi, FT! Oh btw, we tested ‘this’ and ‘this’ worked for us in the office so we assure you it’s going to work for you too.” When we conducted one of our pilots, we had to consciously get an FT who is not familiar with an Android device just to deliberately test the user-friendliness of our proposed solution. Good thing the tests turned out fine.

 

Lesson 3: Do create options. Do not judge paper forms as out of the question.

Coming from a corporate background, I realised that I had this bias for apps and online tools as the only way to go for data collection. Who wouldn’t be in my position? I’ve been so used to the idea of social media and email throughout my working life that I thought I had in my unconscious that papers were so backward and not so sexy for 21st century agriculture.

It turns out, paper surveys were still a good alternative given that internet connection remains to be a huge stumbling block, especially if you are collecting data from growers whose farms are at least 5 kilometres away from the main road. Although eventually our FTs preferred the mobile phone option, the insight was that farmers tend to provide the “right” answer instead of the “real” answer when surveyed with paper forms because they feel being audited when they see our FTs checking or scribbling notes in front of them.

Lesson learned: insight should drive innovation.

 

Agriculture remains to be one of the most vulnerable yet one of the most rewarding fields you could get your hands into as an ICats fellow. Join LGT VP’s ICats Fellowship programme and see for yourself how you can make an impact in the field of agriculture!

Training our first set of field technicians on the mobile technology for executing monitoring and evaluation activities.

Training our first set of field technicians on the mobile technology for executing monitoring and evaluation activities.

 

Data upload is a success!

Data upload is a success!