The cloudless, crystal blue sky welcomed me to Harare when I stepped out of the airport. Rather than the smell of a city, I smelled something perhaps only Africa could offer. It was the smell of an unpolluted piece of land that belongs to Zimbabwe. My anxiety and exhaustion suddenly disappeared after such refreshing welcome. Zimbabwe isn’t just the country under Robert Mugabe’s manipulation, but it is a piece of land that you can see hope.
On my way to Mercy Corps’s office in the suburbs, my attention was taken away by what came into my sight – empty lands filled with wild plants and the horizon line that extended beyond your sight. While vehicles could be easily found on the road, local people also depended a lot on walking. Livestocks, crops and farmlands were within my reach. Everything seemed to be so new and refreshing to me after spending two years in Philadelphia, PA. I was occupied with all these brand new experiences that I almost forgot to get off the car.
I came to Zimbabwe for an internship with one of Mercy Corps’s pilot program – Agri-Fin Mobile, which aims to empower smallholder farmers through mobile technology. I was shocked and thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Mercy Corps and visit rural farmers in Zimbabwe. While I was still trying to connect the idea of mobile technology with farming, I was already excited about the following 43 days in Zimbabwe.
Lucky as I am, my first field site visit happened two days after my arrival. The team planned to visit farmers in a nearby area called Domboshawa, about 30 minutes away from Harare. The purpose was to learn about these rural farmers’ experiences using Eco-Cash, a new form of financial service provided to them through SMS messages and mobile phones. Although I was more excited than anyone in the room, I was warned not to take out my “fancy” camera and randomly shoot pictures of farmers. As a photojournalist, not being able to use a camera during trips means taking away my life. However, I still had to obey Mercy Corps’s code of conducts and avoid getting myself into any unwanted trouble.
The day came much faster than I expected. Despite the warning, I still smuggled my Nikon D3200 camera into my backpack, hoping a miracle would happen so I could use it to capture some memorable moments. We left the office at 9 a.m., and planned to arrive at the first village by 10. As we drove out of Harare, houses became smaller and the mountains seemed to get closer to us. As usual, the crystal blue sky and the sun made Zimbabwe’s winter more bearable than anywhere else. After 20 minutes, we stoppedat a huge local market filled with vendors and grocery-shoppers. The market was in fact a huge open space that allowed vendors to display their crops either on wooden tables or simply wool carpets.The moment we stopped the car, I could feel thousands pairs of eyes were looking toward our direction. It felt as if we were aliens invading another planet. I took out my point-shoot camera and snapped several pictures from the car. Then a man in suit came over and exchanged words briefly with our driver before we hit the road again.
The scene became more rural and houses also became hut made of hay and bricks. We turned onto a winding dirt road that led us to the foot of the stony mountains. I couldn’t hold myself back anymore and decided to take out my “fancy” camera to shoot pictures of these amazing sceneries. Along the way, people seemed to be curious rather than scared about the camera. They would point then smile as I pressed my shutter. As I was fascinated by everything that came into my sight, we finally arrived at the first village. Three older female farmers had already sat under a tree to wait for our arrival. Surprisingly, they were all holding mobile phones and staring at the screen when we got out of the car. Our tour guide introduced us to one of the farmers, who hung his mobile phone on his neck. We were invited to do a thorough visit of this farmer’s house after the group meeting. As we were talking, the rest of the farmers arrived and gathered under the tree. They looked at one another, as if something serious was about to happen.
One of our partners from Kiote, a company that had been conducting business with these farmers since last year, began the conversation by explaining the purpose of our visit. The farmers looked puzzled since they thought we were also here to buy their crops. After a round of self-introduction, the representative from Econet, our local mobile service provider, started to reintroduce the idea of EcoCash to the farmers. He asked the farmers several questions about their experiences with EcoCash. Surprisingly, less than half of the farmers were actually using the service although they all had mobile phones.
The farmers explained that their illiteracy of English has prevented them from understanding the content of SMS messages. A lot of the older generations even had a hard time understanding English since they only spoke and understood Shona. In addition, the lack of communication between agents and farmers produced a huge gap of trust that made farmers skeptical about the authenticity of such “high-tech” financial service. They didn’t know if it’s safe for them to transition from their old way of saving money to this brand new idea of saving, sending and transferring money through a few buttons on the phone.
Shocked by the low percentage of users among Domboshawa farmers, the Econet’s representative explained the concept of EcoCash and how it functioned to the farmers. However, the effect seemed to be minimal. Farmers still seemed to be pretty confused about these “foreign” concepts about mobile
As the conversation became stagnant, our partners from Kiote took over the conversation and tried to act as the liaison between farmers and the Econet representative. He shared his personal experience with EcoCash and translated the farmers’ concerns into a language that’s understandable to the Econet representative. Gradually, the Econet representative was able to listen to the farmers’ concerns completely before he interrupted to make comments. The farmers were also able to comprehend the complex idea of EcoCash through our partner’s translation.
While Agri-Fin Mobile was still a fairly new idea to me, it’s obvious that promoting a complex concept like this to rural farmers needed more works than Mercy Corps expected. One of the main problem is the huge gap between service providers and users, and the lack of resources devoted to education. Although the farmers were trying hard to comprehend how this EcoCash system functions, the disconnection between them and service providers prevents the program from coming into fruition.
The role of agents needs to be incorporated into the system to close down the gap. The meeting ended up taking too long that we missed our second field site visit, but overall, the team was satisfied to learn about more challenges that were facing us. I, was fortunate to be able to witness the challenges facing NGOs while they were trying to conduct global development activities. It isn’t enough to apply what NGOs think might work to any developing countries. Collaboration, constant contact and thorough understanding of unique challenges facing the local population are necessary to ensure the ultimate success of global development programs.
The farmers became more relaxed in front of the cameras by the end, and they even started to pose for us. Before we left, some farmers came over and showed their appreciation of us making the trip.