FourSquare 4 Farming?

While we were brainstorming “big ideas” at a recent working retreat, we stumbled upon the idea of promoting FourSquare as a tool to monitor smallholder farmers’ crop management practices.

Improving productivity of smallholder agriculture is key to improving food security in sub-Saharan Africa. However, given the large variation in agricultural conditions across such an enormous region (Africa is larger than the Americas, Europe, China and India – combined!), our understanding of how farmers are managing their fields is very limited. Mapping agricultural practices over such a large region is especially challenging without even the most basic pieces of information, such as local cropping calendars, in hand. Regional and global studies often characterize production systems by applying generalized typologies such as the often used “farming systems” of Dixon et al (2001) developed for FAO and the World Bank with expert knowledge and partial, proxy data; but their local validity is often questionable without “on the ground” information. And how can we really hope to understand the farming systems of sub-Saharan Africa, let alone help improve their productivity, without much better insights into current farmer practices? This knowledge gap has many development researchers scratching their heads.

Enter FourSquare, “… a location-based social networking website for mobile devices, such as smartphones. Users check-in at venues using a device-specific application by selecting from a list of venues the application locates nearby. Location is based on GPS hardware in the mobile device or network location provided by the application. Each check-in awards the user points and sometimes badges.” (via Wikipedia) Based on that description, I’m sure we’re not the first to think that FourSquare was quite possibly designed…for squares.

But wouldn’t it be cool if even a few farmers could use FourSquare to document their everyday farm activities? Farmers could “check-in” to a maize field, ”Kimani’s maize field by the mango tree”, take a quick photo of the field, and leave a note, “planting Katumani today” or ”bad news, locusts in the field”. These tidbits can accumulate and inform many interested folks: extension workers, traders and service providers, researchers like us, and even other farm communities on the decisions farmers are making and on the status of farmers’ fields – an accumulation that could lead to more effective support to farmers and improved outcomes for their livelihoods. With FourSquare’s data analysis platform and API, once there’s a critical mass of data, more possibilities arise for analysis and application, and commercial (and even public) interest groups might be willing to reward those who provide the information with, say, cell phone credits. Or, like other casual FourSquare users, surely farmers might unlock customized specials such as, “10% discount on urea” when fertilizer application is anticipated, or “free mucuna for green manure” after harvest, or earn “badges” of merit for “planting within the optimum window”. (Awarding mayorship as does FourSquare for frequent visitors may, however, complicate the land tenure system and local politics!)

Indeed, smart phones are already helping farmers with management decisions. For example, the International Rice Research Institute just launched the Nutrient Manager for Rice Application in the Philippines, designed for extension workers who provide farmers with site-specific recommendations on fertilizer usage (read about it here). "We are also developing an app for crop management,” says Rowena Castillo, assistant scientist in IRRI's crop and environmental sciences division, “this will provide information on rice farming practices, irrigation, pest management and seed selection." And while drafting this post, we learned that a farm in California is already putting FourSquare to use.

Not only would researchers love to fill in large data gaps from traditionally data-poor regions, but the data they accumulate, fed by farmer participation, could help inform and enrich investment and intervention strategies. For example, by tapping into locally-harvested, byte-size data, HarvestChoice could validate its existing regional data layers (such as soil and climate, crop choices, production practices, input/output and transport prices) and better calibrate crop allocation, productivity and profitability models. And since our data is primarily intended for the decision-making community…well, you get the picture.

By now, at least two questions come to mind: How are resource poor farmers in Africa supposed to get smartphones? And what about the great number of African famers who cannot read or write? Actually, half of Africa’s one billion people own a mobile phone and they’re not always for talking. The Grameen Foundation, for example, is reaching more than 20,000 farm households in rural Uganda, or 100,000 people, through smartphone innovation (read the full Guardian article here). "We're aiming for a million," says Sean Krepp, Grameen's Uganda director, "and we're looking at scaling this to several other countries." Their success lies in the use of intermediaries trained in smartphone technology. In exchange for performance-based wages via MobileMoney, these “go-betweens” — local farmers chosen for their command of English, community standing and technology know-how — guide knowledge flow between famers and agricultural organizations.

If Grameen can find a way, perhaps others will follow as a contribution to the “digital revolution”. There may be ICT4D grants available or perhaps some mobile phone manufacturers with a philanthropic arm (like, Microsoft Windows Phone + Gates Foundation, or Android Phone + Google Foundation) would like to try out our idea in pilot areas (like, Millennium Villages). FourSquare folks would no doubt promote this idea too. In exchange for the information storehouse and participation in the program, farmers get to keep the smartphone and free use of apps like FourSquare and weather forecast.

Sounds promising enough, as experiments go. Now, where should we submit the concept note?


HarvestChoice, 2012. "FourSquare 4 Farming?." International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC., and University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. Available online at

May 22, 2012