The Power of Community-Based Organizations to Mobilize Farmers’ Savings
In Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer, cocoa is harvested twice a year, in May-June and in October-December. Between seasons, most smallholder farmers do not generate revenue, but they still have several costs to cover, such as seeds and fertilizer. Managing cash flows to cover production costs is a common struggle, as 72 percent of farmers are below the poverty line and less than 10 percent have a bank account, according to a CGAP survey.
A Scale2Save project, launched in 2018 with the MFI Advans Cote d’Ivoire, aims to help smallholder farmers address this challenge by enlisting farmer cooperatives to act as financial agents which can hold their members’ savings. The project is built on the strong relationship and high level of trust that exist between farmers and their cooperatives.
A successful start
Three years after the start of this project, 24 cooperatives are now on board, each of them enabling about 300 farmers to deposit and withdraw money from their Advans bank accounts at the cooperative’s office. The cooperatives’ location close to the farmers’ fields makes it more convenient for the farmers and is safer than traveling with cash to the closest bank branch, usually located several kilometers away.
Now farmers can systematically deposit some of their harvest season sales revenues into accounts at the cooperative and then make withdrawals later in the year as needed. The savings allow them to smooth cash flows and improve crop production management. Over the long term, the farmers’ savings could help them to diversify their income sources by investing in a wider range of crops and to become more and more financially autonomous from the cooperatives.
The cooperatives were motivated to join this partnership for two main reasons. One, they can receive a profit through the customers’ transactions. And two, perhaps more importantly, it further strengthens their relationship with the farmers, having a positive effect on the cooperative’s reputation and farmers’ networking opportunities.
Now the target is to raise that amount to over $19 million in deposits from 120,000 farmers by mid-2022.
Challenges and learning along the way
During the project’s pilot, we encountered a few challenges, which helped us understand better how to provide an effective service that consolidates trust in the agency banking system for all players. Here’s what we learned:
- Motivation is not enough; training is key. Becoming a third-party agent was a completely new business for the cooperative and, despite their enthusiasm, staff found it more complex than expected. Originally only one training was foreseen, but in reality several trainings were needed at all staff levels to ensure a 100 percent uptake and for the cooperative to become a fully functioning third-party agent. The trainings focused mainly on cash flow management, and financial and digital literacy.
- Prepare for growth with automating solutions. As the network of cooperative agents grew, Advans could no longer rely on ad-hoc exchanges with each one, so it had to set up an agency banking solution in the form of a digital application that enabled effective transactions with a growing network. This application ensured little to no errors in the transactions and a speedy service to the customers. Automating the system also enhances the growth potential, taking Advans closer to its goal of reaching out to a larger number of customers in a variety of agricultural sectors.
- Develop relations with mobile network operators to ensure a good system network connection. During the pilot, an unstable mobile network connection in rural areas was a clear obstacle to the cooperatives’ ability to provide financial services. The most common problem this created were undelivered text messages that made customers uneasy when they did not receive confirmation of transactions even a long time after they were made. This had a negative consequence on trust, the pillar of the cooperative-farmer relationship. The solution was to approach the mobile network operators and call on them to put everything in place to ensure a well-working and stable mobile network available on site for the customers to use. This challenge remains even now at certain locations.
- Design communications to take into account all literacy levels. Since a high proportion of smallholder farmers are illiterate, the usual financial education tools were not appropriate. To address this particular challenge, Advans developed simple graphic financial education material. The material included illustrations and step-by-step guidance on how to make transactions, making it accessible to both literate and illiterate customers.
The way forward
Despite the successful uptake so far, the business model is not yet viable for the financial service provider. After three years of project implementation, data shows a low number of withdrawals at the cooperative, suggesting that the fees are not attractive and that farmers prefer to spend time and money to travel to the closest bank branch where withdrawals are free. Advans Côte d’Ivoire is now reviewing the pricing strategy.
The gender and age gap also remains a challenge. Out of the 86,000 farmers on-boarded by the end of 2021, only 11 percent are female and 6 percent are under 30 years old. Advans is working with international and local NGOs to empower female farmers and is planning to work directly with women’s groups in 2022.
70 percent of Ivory Coast’s population depends to some extent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Scale2Save is sharing the learning from this process as widely as possible, with the aim of showing a way forward to build smallholder resilience and contribute to financial inclusion., as