Whatsapp for Business (API) for Agriculture

November 15, 2021

 WhatsApp for Business (WA4B) API is a hugely promising platform to drive digital services for smallholder farmers. So far, the successful roll-out of solutions in the social impact space mainly revolves around user education in health, with limited, to no examples in smallholder agriculture until recently. The WA4B application adoption cycle for both organizations and end-users is nascent in agriculture, with a small number of pioneer organisations iterating, testing and preparing for scale rapidly.

WhatsApp for Business (WA4B) API is a tool for organizations to have guided personal conversations with their teams and uses it to drive conversations to improve lives at scale. It offers:

  • Fully interactive, rich media learning journeys and services.
  • Services can be integrated and enhanced with Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and/ or 1:1 customer care
  • WA4B is scalable and cost-effective when compared to other communications channels and should be used as a complement and replacement to optimize channel communications.
  • WA4B is a new and different user interface that can be challenging to even proficient WhatsApp users. User adoption is a challenge that will require a commitment to training, support and awareness building


The Sandbox

In 2019 a WhatsApp for Business API (WA4B) Sandbox with 9 organisations was established in Africa with the purpose of discovering and developing use cases applicable to this space. Increased use of WA4B in the education and health sectors piqued AgriFin’s interest in replicating these models in the agricultural sector. The Sandbox was designed to accelerate WA4B adoption via intense training, peer-to-peer learning and technical support.

A key channel partner was Turn.io, a public benefit corporation with vast experience in working with social impact organizations. As the business service provider, Turn helped design an environment (Sandbox) where select partners through rapid prototyping could create a minimum viable product and share their learning experiences. While there was no minimal cost, the Sandbox program required partner commitment to identify and experiment with agricultural cases, document and share learnings to catalyze WA4B use. Initial pioneer organisations included a diverse group of agri-innovators across sub-Saharan Africa.

As of April 2021, there were 9 Active partners, 2,377 users and 57,709 messages. As the first of its kind, the Sandbox has been extended into 2021 and it has inspired Turn.io to launch in Mumbai, India and London, U.K., as well as virtually to expand opportunities to accelerate agricultural applications globally.

Four Mini-Cases of WA4B Use in Agriculture

  • Mediae (Shamba Shape-Up and iShamba) uses the WA4B platform as an information and training platform for iShamba registered farmers in Kenya. The outbreak of desert locusts in January 2020 required AgriFin and its partners to rapidly pivot to digital channels. Mediae's WhatsApp hotline allowed farmers to identify locusts and document their sightings, send photos for verification by Plant Village and Penn State University as well as alert the Kenyan government authorities to implement management techniques. The Locust Hotline was also adapted to include the COVID-19 messaging which exemplifies the platform’s flexibility. Going forward, Medaie plans to use the iShamba hotline to monitor and address other pest emergencies.
  • Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (Ethiopian ATA) is a government agency charged with identifying systemic bottlenecks and challenges in the Ethiopian agricultural sector. ATA developed and launched the 8028 farmer hotline, a toll-free IVR/SMS system to disseminate best practices and extension information to smallholder farmers. With the desert locusts and COVID-19 pandemic threatening Ethiopia’s food security, ATA proposed to the Ministry of Agriculture to incorporate WA4B reporting capability. This was supported by AgriFin's learnings in Kenya in partnership with Plant VIllage. The content was tailored and translated into 5 local languages with an additional COVID-19 information line.
  • Arifu provides end-to-end solutions in content design in creating contextualized chatbot learning experiences to deliver over SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram as well as performance analytics to measure impact. Arifu launched in Nigeria in September 2020 and their WhatsApp channel is giving learners access to their expanding content library. Content includes good agricultural practices for several value chains, business, finance and COVID-19 support. Arifu is now seeking to expand to other countries starting with Kenya and is seeking partnerships.
  • Pula provides agricultural insurance to smallholder farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia by working with financial and government institutions. They provide insurance bundles with farm inputs and advisory services to help increase their yields & boost their income. They opted for WA4B to deliver enhanced content at a lower cost than USSD. By partnering with the Kenya Agronomy Academy, Pula developed enriched content via a program dubbed Farming Academy. The test platform was launched in Q2 2020 in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia with an engagement rate of 11-14% for outbound messages. However, due to strategic realignment, this project was put on hold and will be restarted in 2021.


Identified Potential Use Cases for WhatsApp for Business (API) in Agriculture 


Key Lessons

  1. Organizational Readiness: Taking on both the Sandbox and/or WA4B requires commitment from the implementing organization.
  2. WA4B is not a Standalone Solution: It's a platform geared towards smartphone users and farmers are still in the adoption curve for smartphones and new digital services. Therefore, it should be combined with other channels like IVR. SMS and direct training to optimize communication.
  3. Channel and Features: WA4B is ideal for digitally-savvy smartphone users.
  4. Use Case Ideation and Development: Simplicity remained one of the key learnings. Once the MVP was launched, user feedback and new opportunities are driving more complex feature roadmaps but in some instances design experts were brought in to assist in the initial process
  5. User Adoption and Active Use: It is still quite early in the WA4B adoption cycle to identify best practices for adoption. Nonetheless, initial evidence can be gleaned for the Locust hotlines in Kenya and Ethiopia. While it is difficult to compare the two differing situations, it can be concluded that this tool can address fairly complex citations by better targeting as an extension agent rather than for mass citizen reporting. Also training, support and recurring organizational awareness drove increased adoption.

Employing WA4B in the social impact space in agriculture is new, with use cases nascent yet rapidly emerging. Pioneers have shown the potential of the solution in responding to a multitude of use cases, though work remains to fully match the potential of WA4B with agricultural realities.

The WA4B sandbox will continue in 2021 to widen both the bespoke solutions offered whilst working towards our vision of an open content platform for agriculture. At the same time, given the relative novelty of the application of WA4B in agriculture, this is a rapidly evolving space with large potential. For a detailed look into possible WA4B use cases in this sector, please read this original blog and in-depth case study.