FINAL REPORT: Promoting trade integration in regional legume markets with mobile technology

December 28, 2023


Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research

Final Technical Report


Project Title: Promoting Trade Integration in Regional Legume Markets with Mobile Technology

Project Code: AOI 2.2 MSU—Olabisi



Michael Olabisi

Mywish Maredia

Michigan State University


Executive Summary

This project focused on understanding the linkages among, and participation rates in Nigerian and Nigerien markets. Our concern was that tools are needed to enhance market integration in the region (and within countries in the region), and our key research question was how the adoption of digital technology affects market participation.

Our team launched the KasuwaGo app in June 2021 to provide actors in the legume value chain a virtual marketplace -- breaking market barriers to information access for anyone with a smartphone. We had established that more that 40% of traders and farmers had smartphones, and this was growing, on course to be a majority in the short-term. The app was co-created with guidance from farmers, buyers, and sellers at all levels in the value chain. Their input into the development process came through face-to-face interviews before the development process started (before the pandemic), as well as by focus groups that reviewed the nearly completed app to give feedback that further improved the app. This gave us confidence that the stakeholders will accept the platform, because it was made to their specifications.

We trained and deployed more than 200 youth to reach out to markets, as technical help agents to support traders and farmers who were interested in the app. The trained youth reached more than 200 markets. This process served to address the cross-cutting theme of youth engagement, as well as our goal of connecting markets with technology, as it helped push the number of registered users for the e-marketplace up from about 4,000 to above 13,000 users.

We handed off the app to Novus Agro - a Nigeria-based company. to manage for the long term. The context for this transfer for this was not ideal, as changes to the app by our technical partner – Garden Ventures disrupted its function. Furthermore, Garden Venture’s promise to help deliver a USSD module for users without smartphones was not met, leaving us with the challenge of reaching the least-advantaged traders and farmers.

We trained two doctoral students on a short-term basis at Michigan State University, and more than two hundred others (students and other youth combined) in Nigeria and Niger on survey methods. The most valuable output is our set of relationships with stakeholders in Nigeria and Niger, and our ongoing commitment to work with them for mitigating the challenges of food security.

In the sections below, we summarize the objectives and planned activities, list outputs and outcomes, and describe the challenges and opportunities that remain.


Project Partners

Dr. Michael Olabisi served as the PI (Principal Investigators), providing overall leadership on research design, mentoring, management, and reporting. Dr. Mywish Maredia served as the co-PI, co-leading the research and mentoring components. Dr. Eric Crawford also serves as a co-PI, supporting the project management efforts for the team. Dr. Dennis Phillips coordinated the further development and rollout of the mobile phone app and web service that underlies the research component of the project.

Dr Ajeigbe led the Kano segment of the project, from his position with the Center for Dryland Agriculture at Bayero University, Kano. Dr. Ajibade led the Ilorin segment of the project, and coordinated activities related to gathering app design requirements from farmers, resellers, and retailers. We had several leadership changes for the team in Niger but settled for an arrangement where Abdoulaye Amadou based at ICRISAT in served as supervisor for specific tasks out of Niamey and reported to Dr. Ajeigbe in Kano for our efforts there.

Our technical partners were Venture Garden Group (renamed Garden Ventures) and Novus Agro. Venture Garden Group (VGG) is a Nigerian technology company offering technology solutions, across various industries. VGG developed and deployed the KasuwaGo app while Novus Agro is the company managing the app. Novus Agro facilitates trade and services between farming communities in Nigeria, operating over 700 outlets and enhancing transparency in agricultural value chains. Informal stakeholders involved in the project include market leaders, community and traders spanning across more than a hundred markets.


Project Objectives and Planned Activities

The project aimed to develop and deploy a virtual marketplace app specifically designed for grains like cowpea – the leading legume in West Africa. This app provides farmers and buyers with a convenient platform to connect and trade their products, eliminating geographical barriers and enabling efficient transactions. By leveraging technology, this objective aims to revolutionize the grains value chain by streamlining the process of buying and selling produce, benefiting all actors in the trade.

To support our understanding of value chains, we also aim to train Nigeria-based youth and researchers, as part of capacity-development for sustaining food security initiatives.

We also aimed to initiate research and evaluation activities, to capture impacts and lessons learned from app adoption and use of the virtual marketplace. Finally, we planned as part of our work to address cross-cutting themes related to gender and youth.


Objective 1 — Development and deployment of the virtual marketplace app

The technical partner, as agreed, developed a prototype of this platform with input and feedback from the PIs between March and May 2020 (primarily in April). After multiple rounds of review, the resulting prototype was ready for presentation to the stakeholders.

The Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), for users to interact with the prototype, were initially scheduled for April 2020. The FGDs had to be postponed because of movement and meeting limitations resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, including MSU’s Human Research Protection Program’s restrictions on conducting in-person research.

COVID Impact Survey:

To make progress during the COVID-19 lockdown in obtaining feedback from stakeholders that could be used by the mobile phone platform developers, we implemented a cell phone survey of more than 600 farmers, re-sellers, and retailers, that solicited feedback on the impacts of COVID, how they were adapting to the lockdown, and how they planned to change the way they buy and sell (including potential use of our proposed platform). We proposed two rounds of surveys: one was completed in May 2020 and a second was scheduled to take place after the FGDs in August 2020.

The surveys showed that most stakeholders with phones are open to using mobile technology for connecting to buyers and sellers as a form of adaptation to the pandemic.

Focus Group Discussions:

We conducted multiple rounds of review for the app with potential users In Niamey, Maradi, Ilorin and Kano. The feedback had representatives from our technical partner to take notes on user interactions with the prototype (or with the app for later rounds of FFGDs in Niger).

We completed translations of the language script for the app. When the app is launched, users will be able to use the app in Hausa, Yoruba, Nupe and English. Additional points are discussed under the App Launch heading below.

App Launch:

We launch the app for use in Nigeria in June 2021. There were formal launch events in Kano and Ilorin, with dignitaries, influential members of the community, and representatives of USAID/Nigeria invited to show support for this new technology. Local and international protocols that ensure COVID-safety will be followed at the events.

We signed an agreement with VGG, our technical partner, which calls for them to set up and run the virtual marketplace service in the interim, while we look for a long-term partner. The app and service will be hosted on a cloud server, with support from our VGG and technical partners, who will grant us access to review the data generated by users of the service.

Based on feedback from users, and to address issues that had not been considered in the design phase, several updates were made to the app by our technical partners.

We screened and created a shortlist of partners that can help develop a USSD interface that allows farmers and sellers without smartphones to engage in a limited manner with the system. The limitations are technical, resulting from the smaller range of features on non-smartphones relative to those available on smartphones.

In preparation for the launch event, we reached out to MSU’s Office of General Counsel, which provided advice on the language to include in the terms and conditions, as well as guidance on relationships with Nigeria partners to avoid liability exposure. We had guidance on steps needed to ensure compliance with local laws from both MSU lawyers and the lawyers of our Nigerian technical partner, VGG. We communicated with USAID through the Legume Systems Research Innovation Lab (LSR-IL) management office to obtain guidance on branding and liability disclaimer language that should be included in the app the terms and conditions.

The launch event was followed by a targeted campaign through our partners and hired enumerators to educate market associations and farmer groups on the use of the technology. The outreach program, and the word-of-mouth campaign that we plan to initiate with it, will be carefully designed to enable future research on the adoption of mobile phone-based technology. The USSD component of the virtual market is expected to be introduced later in the year. We have started recruiting enumerators for this exercise.

Objective 2 — Elements to address research and evaluation questions

The main data collection and research-oriented activities helped to enrich our understanding of the legume marketing value chains, the roles of key actors, and their responses to the significant and unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Extension of app development

After the initial deployment of the app in Kano and Ilorin for Nigeria, we ran pilot-tests of the service with legume buyers and sellers at all stages of the value chain—from farmers to aggregators, traders, wholesalers, and retailers (but not final consumers). The rollout after the initial launch activities will follow a research design that allows us to gain additional insight into how value chain actors adopt and use new (mobile) technologies.

The next step was our roll out of the app in Niger. In Niamey, we recruited legume value chain participants with the support of our Abdoulaye Amadou. The stakeholders were engaged in an accelerated version of the process we took in Nigeria, to ensure that we update the app and virtual market service to match the specific needs and preferences of users in Nigerien markets. We then re-launched the app and service after the software updates were completed that accommodated Niger preferences, like having the French language.

2. Research objectives and hypotheses

We organized the data collection and research design efforts in three parts. First, we collected data with our research partners and enumerators to study the drivers of adoption for this technology as its usage started to expand. The tests included how gender and age differences affect the diffusion of knowledge about the technology. Second, we collected data from stakeholders, through in-person and follow-up phone interviews. In this step, we obtained data on user perceptions, patterns of use, and impacts of the technology.

As a supplementary activity, we also had youth trainees engage with users in various markets, and document when they helped users with registering to use the app, given that this technical step proved to be a hold-up for traders and farmers who were less tech-savvy smartphone users.

Our impact evaluation program, centered on a survey of more than 2,000 users in early 2023 to assess whether they found it easy to use the product, whether the average distance between suppliers and buyers increased, and whether the fraction of orders placed using phones or other digital methods increased as a greater share of current buyers and suppliers adopt low-cost modes.

3. Approaches for HICD, including non-student training

We had to update our HICD plans to reflect delays caused by COVID, complicated by difficulties with recruiting international students that would require a J-1 visa to benefit from USAID funding while enrolled in an MSU degree program.

Given the foregoing, we offered one semester of non-degree training at MSU for two advanced PhD candidates from the West Africa region. The dissertation-stage candidates recruited for this program enrolled as students at MSU to participate in our graduate classes and seminars, as part of their PhD training between August and December 2022. The visiting scholars and their research supervisors, who also visited MSU from October 15-31, 2022, were able to observe the research and writing process of colleagues and mentors at MSU.

Our approach follows the train-the-trainer theme. When the visiting scholars returned to Nigeria, they each conducted a training session for junior researchers at their respective universities.

In addition to the foregoing, we recruited students from the host country universities to work as enumerators. Our capacity-development efforts included intensive training programs for the enumerators, our partners, and their students.


Project Accomplishments 

We developed and successfully deployed the KasuwaGo app despite difficulties and challenges encountered in the field. The app served as an intervention to support a resilient and well-functioning value chain/market system, to increase income options for sellers and to increase supply options for buyers. We hired enumerators to educate market associations and farmer groups on the use of the technology.

These enumerators played a crucial role in ensuring the smooth adoption of the KasuwaGo app by providing hands-on training and support to the market associations and farmer groups. Their efforts helped overcome any initial resistance or skepticism towards the technology, leading to its successful implementation in the field.

We also successfully licensed the app to a partner taking over the service, as described in the handoff section below.

We trained two West African PhD students visiting Michigan State University, in addition to several other students in their respective universities and our collaborators, who benefitted from a short visit to MSU.


Cross-Cutting Themes

The project created an opportunity to engage more youth in the agri-food sector, given the higher rates of mobile technology adoption among younger farmers and sellers. One of our main activities was a youth outreach activity aimed at engaging young individuals who were familiar with technology and passionate about promoting the app. More than 200 youths (18 to 35 years old) were hired and trained on the app's features and benefits, enabling them to effectively communicate its value to other potential users. In markets. This effort was made possible by a cross-cutting theme grant (of $15,000) awarded by the Legume Systems Innovation Lab.

Our efforts were gender-responsive, as women actors in the value chain were considered at all steps of our studies. In principle, the project’s main intervention can offer female participants improved chances of business success, as e-market places are a more level playing-ground than traditional markets. On the other hand, given the lower ownership of cellphones and smartphones by women farmers and sellers, we put additional effort into contacting women to boost their participation rates. We also tried to design a USSD service that does not require a smartphone, but technical delays meant it could not be ready in time.

Engaging Dr. Ajibade on this project provides the opportunity to easily tap into the perspectives of female participants in the West African context. Prior research leads us to expect that virtual networks may alleviate some of the gender biases in traditional social networks.

The information generated from the project can be useful in policy recommendations through identifying specific areas where interventions are needed to empower and support youth and women in the legumes value-chain. This can include targeted training programs, access to financial resources, and creating an enabling environment that fosters their active participation and entrepreneurship in the industry.


Outputs and Handoff of Outputs

1. Project Outputs

By examining market linkages, participation, and access, our research sheds light on the challenges and opportunities faced by local businesses and farmers in Niger, Nigeria and by extension to other countries in West Africa.

The lessons learned from our research efforts can inform the design of targeted interventions and policies for regional market integration, fostering inclusive growth, and reducing poverty levels in the region. The specific outputs of the project are:

     a. A mobile phone app, a phone-based virtual marketplace that connects different players along the legume value chain—from farmers to resellers to sellers.

     b. Several research papers describing the insights, knowledge and understanding gained from our efforts. These include.

  •  Gender Participation Rates in Food Value Chains: Evidence from Nigeria (with Maredia, M., Ajeigbe, H.A., and Ajibade, T.B.) - under preparation for submission.
  •  In-Group Competition for Incentives (with Liu, J., Maredia, M., Ajeigbe, H.A., Ajibade, T.B.) Submitted to Journal of Development Economics, available online on SSRN.
  • Spatial and Seasonal Price Variation: The Role of Inter-Market Connections (with Liu, J., Maredia) Submitted to Food Policy Journal
  • Market Linkages in the West African Food Value Chains (with Maredia, M., Ajeigbe, H.A., and Ajibade, T.B.) -under preparation for submission.
  • Gendered Differences in Profit Margins? Evidence from Grain Value Chains in Nigeria (with Sambo, A., Maredia, M., Ajeigbe, H.A., Ajibade, T.B.) Submitted to Food Security Journal

While our impact evaluation study happened too close to the period when technical issues with the app held up new user registration and therefore did not show high levels of use of the app by traders and farmers, we recognize that our efforts fit within the broader digital transition in Africa, where most farmers and traders can connect to information and to one another through mobile phones.

2. Handoffs of Project Outputs

We handed over the App to Novus Agro, in June 2023. Novus Agro now has the right to use the KasuwaGo Africa-wide indefinitely. We communicated with MSU’s Intellectual Property management office, which documented and advised on the steps needed to transfer the intellectual property in the app. The transfer process eventually took the form of an agreement to license the app to Novus Agro for free.

This step addressed the sustainability of the virtual platform beyond the project phase. Our expectation is that Novus Agro can monetize the connections to markets that the platform offers, all while yielding the benefits of market integration that motivated our project.


Further Challenges and Opportunities 

1. Challenges

The COVID pandemic and travel restrictions associated with it disrupted our plans in several ways.  We adapted as quickly as we could, including doing some work via phone surveys and shelving other processes until local ordinances would allow us to schedule focus group discussions.

A key challenge was the set of technical issues partner, VGG, towards the end of the study. The app started to malfunction in February 2023 and currently needs to be reconfigured. (Novus Agro is working on this). This setback adversely affected the usage and further development of the app.

Another challenge is the need to reach people without smartphones via the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). This step calls for more funds. While USSD offers the advantage of equitably reaching a larger share of the population, it comes with specific challenges of the cost of building a system, limitations on features that can be offered, and the need to tailor the system design to the requirements of the cellphone service providers, as USSD does not use the internet’s open protocol. Partnerships with leading mobile network operators in each country – and the costs that come with those – are therefore unavoidable for this approach to populations without smartphones.

2. Opportunities

We are excited by the possibility of continued engagement with West African food value chains through multi-stakeholder partnerships, as funding becomes available. The stakeholder groups in such partnerships will extend to include processors and other service providers that can improve access to value-addition for the actors in the value chain. Opportunities for further study also include the prospect of systems for sharing information on market linkages and prices with farmers and traders in the value chains.

There are also several opportunities to engage with farmers and traders in other African countries, especially countries in the Sahel region like Burkina Faso, Benin, and Ghana. A collaborative effort to connect the farmers with traders and their peers in other locations can yield significant insights into emerging trends and optimal strategies within the grains value chains. This collaborative effort also allows for the exchange of policy ideas and best practices, fostering a conducive environment for sustainable growth and development in the legumes sector.


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