How Human-Centered Design Studies Affect Digital Advisory Services: A Nepal Case
We live in an era where technology is rapidly evolving, and digital advisory service (DAS) providers must embrace effective methodologies to remain relevant to their target clients and expand their client base. Globally, rural agriculture has benefited immensely from DAS providers stepping into the rural livelihoods ecosystem. The World Bank reports that digital agriculture revolutions will significantly reduce transaction costs and information asymmetries within the agrifood system.
When it comes to specific countries, like Nepal in South Asia, DAS has the potential to transform the lives of smallholder farmers (SHFs) towards a more commercial, viable business proposition. Farming is the cornerstone of the Nepalese economy, and as of 2021, 62 percent of the population was involved in agriculture as a livelihood. The feminization of agriculture is stark in rural Nepal; 14 percent of the majority male workforce is abroad, and the majority of farmers are women. Women farmers’ productivity and market gains can increase with access to extension and advisory services; however, those options are often not readily available for them. DAS providers typically cater their products to a more generic profile of a farmer who is in the Global South—a male farmer.
There are many barriers to DAS that rural women farmers face globally, including digital illiteracy and regular access to smartphones. These challenges, compounded by the effects of climate change, can leave women vulnerable to environmental and climate-related shocks, leading to further food insecurity. A significant portion of Nepali farmers are being left behind when it comes to accessing DAS.
Agripath, funded by the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC) and the German International Cooperation (GIZ), is an action-research project taking place across five countries, including Nepal. The goal of the project is to identify and scale effective and inclusive pathways for DAS to reach men and women SHFs through vast, intensive, applied research. The research is exploring levers to enhance digital adoption and determining best-case models of delivering digital advisory to SHFs. Research outcomes will contextualize the project’s proxy mobile application, farmbetter, to provide tailor-made DAS through a lens of greater inclusivity and effectiveness for SHFs. The aim is to pave the way for DAS providers in these countries (and neighboring ones) to gain a deeper understanding of how to do that.
Farmbetter LLC started in 2019 as a survey tool to measure SHFs’ climate resilience. Since then, farmbetter has launched several mobile apps, all of which are integrated into the Whatsapp 2-way and group-based audio/text/file channel, across several countries: Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Columbia and India.
“Informing farmers their climatic risk level, we often left farmers with more questions than answers on how to cope with climatic shocks and stresses. Through a partnership with the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT), we saw an opportunity to put our expertise together and design a unique matching algorithm. Based on specific datasets, we are able to match a farmer to climate change management solutions.” -Dr. Choptiany, Co-CEO, farmbetter
In Nepal, in October and November 2022, farmbetter conducted HCD-led engagements with farmers and extension agents to dive deeper into modifications required for application update and content use. It resulted in evidence showcasing the need to pivot towards integrating farmbetter with Facebook Messenger and away from the pre-existing integration with Whatsapp. Crucial insights about farmers’ daily technology habits, use cases and pain points, or barriers they faced in receiving information or other products and services were unearthed as well. SHFs went through three simple tests with the farmbetter app: (i) say ‘hi’ to the app; (ii) register themselves into the app; (iii) report a pest problem. It was through these tests that it became clear that the challenge was a result of the SHFs not knowing how to use and navigate Whatsapp. Nepali SHFs are familiar with Facebook Messenger. Nepali women farmers in particular rely on the Facebook Messenger application to keep in touch with their spouses who work and are educated overseas. And there is no wonder about it when we note that there are 11.85M Facebook users in Nepal as of early 2023, and that the social media platform is the most used among people throughout the country.
Agripath and farmbetter faced some critical questions after undertaking this human-centered design (HCD) process in Nepal, such as:
- What is the opportunity cost of building farmbetter into Facebook Messenger (i.e., resource implications, where else will it be relevant?) and foregoing this contextualization (e.g., gender sensitivity, farmer usability and farmer trust)?
- Will the farmbetter product be a solution that can be easily adaptable to varying market and user needs? If so, how will this be materialized (for example, should we create a base app and adapt for every market?)
- In the short- to mid-term in each geography where farmbetter is operational, what shifts in user preferences can be anticipated, and how will that affect the application?
The Agripath project will build out the farmbetter integration with Facebook Messenger, which will support the continued action-research project for additional insights.
When DAS providers do not have project-related resources, it might be critical to stay in a familiar geography with the pre-existing build. Without resources to invest in processes like HCD, it might turn out to be even more costly than anticipated to enter into an unknown market. DAS providers could even ask themselves if they are ready to scale, and if they are, what aspects are they willing to invest into the new geography to make their entry successful and sustainable.