6 Insights Driving Digital Design for Smallholders in Zimbabwe

Designing human-centered solutions for smallholder farmers begins with inspiration. Over the past few weeks, IDEO.org designers have traveled across Zimbabwe, seeking inspiration for our design process through conversations, observations, and immersive activities with a diverse array of actors in rural communities.

After conducting 58 interviews spanning 6 provinces, our designers have gained an important understanding of the lives and aspirations of Zimbabwe’s smallholder households. These insights inspire us as we seek to design digital financial products and services that meet their needs and desires. Here are 6 of the most important insights that continue to drive our design process:

1. Seasonal fluctuations rule short-term decisions.

It’s no secret that the financial lives of smallholders are unpredictable. Personal finances fluctuate significantly month-to-month – driven by the agricultural, school, and holiday calendars. Ultimately, this instability results in short-term decision-making; with many smallholders forced to choose between short-term needs and long-term goals.

“[Money for] fertilizer [is my biggest challenge],” explains Mrs. C, a farmer from Goromonzi. “I lost all my money after the last selling season, and I have no one reliable to borrow from.”

2. Market access barriers hinder smallholder farmers’ profit optimization.

Without reliable access to markets, smallholders find themselves unable to maximize their profit potential. In many cases, a lack of information on market prices limits informed decision-making – preventing smallholders from moving into more profitable crops and leading them to miss out on higher prices offered in nearby markets. And even when farmers have access to this information, few affordable transport options exist, thereby dissuading smallholders from traveling to seek a better price for their harvests.

“I sell my ground nuts in the village square because I can walk there. My cousin-brother says they pay more in town, but we have no way to go,” explains youth farmer Joseph.

3. Responsive and current agricultural information is a scarce commodity.

Even as new SMS information services are introduced, smallholders remain eager for two-way communication and richer content. Unlike traditional extension officers, these information services (such as weather and planting tips) are not responsive to individual questions and concerns of farmers. Increasingly, smallholders are demanding customized, up-to-date, and responsive information services on weather, planting tips, disease identification, market prices, and more.

“[EcoFarmer information services are] helpful, but I want to be able to text back,” offers a farmer from Mazowe. “I want to be able to ask my questions and get the most up-to-date information…. I want an extension officer in my pocket.”

4. Paying for education is a priority but cumbersome.

All of the smallholders with whom we spoke emphasized the importance of sending their children to school. For farmers, ensuring that their children receive a good education represents one of the few clear paths to a better life for their families. However, school fees are burdensome, often forcing farmers to sell valuable assets or make tradeoffs between other immediate expenses such as food or inputs.

 “I want to send my children to school because I didn’t have the chance [to go],” remarked Mrs. S from Murehwa.

5. Social groups trump big banks when it comes to trust.

In the rush to expand the reach of formal financial services, we sometimes forget the value of informal offerings. But the truth is that communities provide a range of important financial services, including savings, cash advances and credit to neighbors. In Zimbabwe, distrust of banks following hyperinflation and dollarization means that loans and remittances from friends and family, in addition to savings and lending groups, fill an important demand for highly trusted and customizable financial services.

“We offer savings plans for all kinds of needs: different contributions, interest rates, for multiple family members, etc.,” explained a savings group leader from Zaka.

6. Farming can be a source of pride.

Farming may be difficult, but for many smallholders farming is also a source of pride. Despite the numerous challenges faced by smallholders, our conversations revealed that they have a strong sense of identity around their role as farmers. They celebrate the fact that hard work, active learning and self-improvement are the keys to not only their success, but also the success of all Zimbabwe.

“Farming is the foundation of the economy,” one community member stated proudly. “You are the one who gives because you are the one who always has.”