Unlocking doors to markets through energy and information

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In northern Ghana, many smallholder farmers in the Upper East Region have traditionally been unable to negotiate fair prices with buyers, due to a lack of availability and accessibility of up-to-date information on market trends. This information gap has inhibited their ability to secure the full value for their produce, attract new buyers, plan production or make decisions about crop diversification.

To overcome these market barriers, Christian Aid worked with a privately owned agricultural market information system company and a local civil society organization to deliver a platform that could send real-time market price information to over 500 farmers, via a low-cost SMS system.

Thanks to the initiative, 90 percent of farmers say they know market prices before they sell, compared with only 30 percent before the project. As a result, they have been able to increase their revenue for the same quantity of produce, because they can now follow price trends and strategize about how, when and where to sell.

Successful though it was, this project was limited to farmers who owned mobile phones and had reliable access to electricity. Women were less likely to own phones or have sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to benefit. In this context, the twin barriers of energy and education prevented some producers from realizing the full potential of their products. That’s why any approach to markets work must be holistic and wide-ranging.

For an example of this, we can look to Sierra Leone, where a Christian Aid partner provided solar energy to help two fishing communities run deep freezers for fish storage. The aim was to reduce spoilage and enable small fishers to sell fresh, rather than smoked, fish at weekly markets. As part of the project, individuals in the fishing communities were trained on how to install, manage and maintain the solar facilities as a social enterprise.

The provision of solar-run freezers led to a 30-40 percent increase in fishers’ income and resulted in the emergence of women entrepreneurs, who bought the fresh produce to transport to local markets. The entire project was funded on a part-loan, part-grant basis, with the repaid money invested in new local activities, effectively creating a recyclable, sustainable business model.

Likewise, it’s vital we help local producers access the specialist support they need for running a viable business. At times, this means moving beyond traditional grant-based models and toward “blended” support packages, which combine strategic grant support, business analysis and technical assistance with loans and investment finance.

Too often, poor women and men have the enthusiasm, energy and enterprise to succeed, but the rules of the game are stacked against them, so the creation of positive enabling environments for businesses is key. As part of improving access to markets, we must commit to tackling the power imbalances, systems and structures that continue to sideline producers and consumers.

This is an extract of a blog How Enterprise Can Fight Poverty featured on DevexImpact, written by Christian Aid’s Clare Clifton.