Smallholder farmers in Zambia have gone digital, advertising and coordinating sales, making payments and transporting crops with the help of a Virtual Farmers’ Market, a pilot project just launched in time for the May harvest.  Known locally as Maano - meaning “intelligence” in the local language, Tonga - the mobile application based project aims to link more than 2,500 farmers with up to 100 potential Zambian and international buyers, creating a system that allows for transparency, negotiation, greater pricing transparency and more effective and fair transactions.

Redefining the way we do things

“Smallholder farmers are producing most of the developing world’s food, but at the same time they're often stuck in a spiral of poverty, preventing them from growing their businesses and improving their livelihoods. The decentralized rural markets and farmers’ lack of access to profitable markets is at the core of this complex equation,” said Ahnna Gudmunds, project coordinator and co-founder of the Virtual Farmers Market. Smallholder farmers, who are usually situated in remote areas, find themselves in a position where their only option is to sell their crops at the local market or through a middle man who leaves the farmer with very little or no profit at all.

“In Zambia, real-time and reliable market information about farmers’ supply and traders’ demand is sorely lacking. Rural smallholders are worst affected by this information asymmetry; often invisible to traders who might buy their produce and often obliged to sell at rock-bottom prices to the few buyers that irregularly venture into rural areas,” said Evin Joyce, project manager in Zambia and co-founder of the innovation. Using smart phone technology, Maano makes these farmers visible to more buyers, cuts out unnecessary middlemen and aims to help farmers get better prices for their produce and reduce transaction costs for buyers.  

For farmers who aren’t tech savvy, Maano’s simple and straightforward interface is the perfect introduction into the world of smartphone apps. Jay Akkireddy, WFP Innovator and co-founder, explained, “Mobile phones revolutionised communication, and smartphones are redefining the way we do things. Yet they still have a long way to go in help feeding the planet. Maano is a small step towards achieving zero hunger by answering the burning question of the farmer - where is the market?”  

Inspiration to Implementation

The idea behind the smartphone app came to life at the Innovation Accelerator in 2016.  The Virtual Farmers Market team participated in a week long Boot Camp held in Munich, Germany. During the Boot Camp – selected WFP staff and external experts - worked together to validate their innovation idea and develop a product that would both be practical and meet the needs of the people that WFP serves.

Upon returning to Zambia, the team developed their first prototype to integrate the most essential needs of both farmers and buyers into one app. To shift from concept to realization, the app had to prioritize features as well as test and validate their progress with potential users. Through validation, the team was able to select a suitable name for their app, and market this to stakeholders.

User experience tests were conducted during workshop sessions, where the farmers and traders were presented with the new app features. These workshops allowed the team to better get to know the users that the app is going to serve. Observing them interact with the app informed fine-tuning and adjustments. 

Integrating Digital Services

To overcome the many challenges that smallholder farmers face, access to digital services has become integral. Information available online can bridge productivity gaps, thereby increasing food security and incomes. Linkages to markets, mobile money transfer, and the wider social network, may help farmers, particularly vulnerable and low-income farmers, to transition out of poverty.

WFP already has substantial experience connecting farmers to markets, including initiatives such as Purchase for Progress (P4P), Home-Grown School Feeding and the private-sector focused Farm to Market Alliance. These encourage investments that connect smallholders to markets to help diversify their crops and broaden their business prospects. WFP’s existing initiatives of connecting farmers to markets combine partnerships, innovation and context-specific support for smallholders, with systemic impact in value chains and broader food systems. 

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Virtual Farmers Market is a natural continuation of these efforts, using cutting-edge digital technology to build strong, sustainable linkages between buyers and sellers. The potential of a Virtual Farmers Market stretches far beyond getting just one farmer to one buyer. At scale, this innovative effort can contribute to building stronger and more efficient food systems. The launch of the Maano app in Google PlayStore is only the beginning of the journey to tackle food insecurity through smartphone technology. The selected smallholder farmers in Zambia are the first users to test what is sure to be a game changing venture to mobilise rural farmers and integrate them into commercial markets. 

Although Virtual Farmers Market is still in its early stages, the team is setting their sights high, aiming to extend the initiative on the continent and beyond. “The next step is to test the scalability of Maano within Zambia, and its adoptability to other market contexts through small-case testing in a few other countries. We are currently looking for investments and partners to help us realise this next phase,” said Ahnna Gudmunds. 


The Virtual Farmers’ Market in Zambia has been developed by WFP Zambia, together with WFP's Purchase for Progress (P4P) coordination unit and the Munich-based Innovation Accelerator.