June 10, 2013. What do vending machines have to do with smallholder farmers in India? A recent Business Wireheadline reads, “Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizers and Chemicals (GNFC) said it would install fertilizer vending machines in the five districts of the state.” Moreover, in Germany, Mother Nature Network reports that, “in an effort to save money and labor, a farm is selling fresh, local produce from vending machines.”
Smithsonian Magazine reports that the first vending machine dispensed holy water. Modern versions may provide lottery tickets, newspapers, bicycle parts, condoms, fishing bait, DVDs, stamps, ice cream, noodles, skin products, and even high-priced electronics: any product for which there is demand. Today U.S. vending machines raise about $6 billion annually in revenue. Why so popular? Convenience and customizability. Consumers can make a purchase from vending machines any time of day or night, choosing exactly what they want, usually in a single-serve quantity, from a predefined set of choices.
Melinda Gates’s Ted Talk describes how corporations such as Coca-Cola, whose plugged-in, global network of marketers and distributors ensures that every remote village in every developing country wants—and can get—a Coke, in many cases in a vending machine. Why shouldn't this work for other products that smallholder farmers need or want?
In India, with the GNFC example, farmers are responding to the convenience and custom applicability. Their days are filled with fieldwork and housework and roads cans be rough, making trips to a supply store far and few between. On top of that, inputs like fertilizer are often sold in quantities that are too large for smallholder needs, or in chemical combinations that don’t align with soil deficiencies. Imagine the change in adoption that would come from the ability to access fertilizer through a vending machine day or night, buying only the amount needed for their plot and being able to select and mix the appropriate chemicals on the spot. Could this not work for improved seed as well?
Farmers are laborers, breadwinner, processors, salesmen, and consumers. Perhaps the role of consumer is most important in driving new technology to smallholder markets. What other creative solutions are companies using to respond to the needs of smallholder consumers in developing countries?