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Using mobile technology to support smallholder sustainability

Simple mobile and online technology supports smallholder producers of palm oil to move towards greater sustainability.

In a project funded by the Global Forest Watch Small Grants Fund, Proforest recently tested mobile phone apps and a customized online dashboard with smallholder farmers in Honduras. The trial helped us identify how the tools can be successfully used, and the need for more development and training to make the technology more widely applicable and available.

Adapting and customizing the technology

The project aimed to develop and test simple, accessible apps for mobile phones or tablets to help companies and group managers working with smallholders to collect sustainability data in the field, and interpret it to support management decision-making.

Working with partners Blue Raster, Daemeter and WRI, Proforest adapted existing surveys to:

  • Map locations of farmers’ oil palm plots.
  • Explore smallholders’ needs for support to improve their farming practices and livelihoods.
  • Understand labour conditions on the smallholders’ farms.
  • Reveal High Conservation Values (HCVs) on land identified for new oil palm plantations.

Project partner, Blue Raster, provided technical advice to the project and built the mobile surveys using two ESRI data collection apps for the trial: Collector for ArcGIS  and Survey123 for ArcGIS. They input the survey questions in Spanish to the two apps, and uploaded maps developed by Daemeter and Proforest showing the probability of HCVs being present in the area.

Blue Raster also built a customized, web-based dashboard for the project enabling users to:

  • Visualize data layers, including farmers’ plots
  • Summarize field data in lists and charts
  • Filter results
  • Calculate farmers’ plot areas
  • Export maps and data for reporting.

The dashboard is an important part of the package, as it enables users to easily review and interpret the data. This, in turn, helps them make better and quicker management decisions, and report progress more easily.

Field trial success

Proforest trialled the online tools with smallholder oil palm farmers in Honduras in September 2016. The Proforest team worked with 13 members of the technical staff from the palm oil company Jaremar and smallholder group managers from the cooperative, Unpala, who supply Jaremar.

Following a half-day training session, the Unpala group manager and the Jaremar technical staff tested the mobile apps with smallholder farmers in the cooperative. While mapping proposed oil palm expansion areas in the field, they simultaneously cross-referenced them with maps showing the probability that HCVs exist on those lands. The company staff and group managers also used the apps to collect information about labour conditions and farmers’ needs (for example, fertilizer or training) through survey questions with smallholders.

Once back in range of a mobile signal, the field data was uploaded directly to the dashboard. Back in the office, the team analysed the data on the dashboard in ways that would help them report for certification purposes, for example under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Company technical staff and the group manager immediately started to see the possibilities of using the system to understand and manage deforestation and other sustainability risks across the smallholder supply base.

A hit with farmers

“They [the apps] will be incredibly useful once we have the information about each palm farmer. This will make it much easier to see how much land is used within, outside or near protected areas, rivers, forests, etc. and the appropriate measures needed to mitigate the problems found on each farm.”
Nelson Rodríguez, member of the Jaremar trial team

Some of the younger farmers themselves were also keen to use the apps and were enthusiastic about their ability to locate their plots on the maps. Where up-to-date satellite imagery was available the technical team and farmers were able to pinpoint farm boundaries on the app in the field and discuss issues around their lands.

Training and support are essential

The field trial overcame problems of low connectivity, insufficient mobile phone capacity, out-of-date maps, and some users’ unfamiliarity with mobile apps. After only a couple of days, users were very enthusiastic about the apps and dashboard. Following the trial, the Jaremar team expressed interest in continuing to use the system.

The trial highlighted the importance of training and support, both to get new users online and for existing users who need occasional follow-up trouble-shooting support. It was also clear that the effectiveness of the field survey process wasn’t just a result of the quality of the apps themselves. The users’ manner and relationships with farmers was key to putting the smallholders at ease and gathering useful information. Some of the older, more experienced staff – who were often not the most technically able – had the most engaging manner. It points to the need to train older farmers and technical staff to use mobile apps to get the best combination of old and new.

Scaling up

The trial demonstrated that the technology has great potential for supporting smallholder farmers worldwide to move towards greater sustainability and responsible markets. Now the challenge is to scale up the technology and make the tools more widely available to smallholders around the world.

In doing this, it is essential that the technology is affordable and accessible, given smallholders’ limited financial and technical resources. It is also critical that we collaborate with and learn from other organizations doing similar work.

Proforest and project partners are seeking funding for the next steps in scaling up. We are in discussion with partners and other organizations to agree on the best approach to take the technology forward.

For more information contact:

, Senior Project Manager, Proforest.

Published 25.11.2016

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