Meghan Fleckenstein, Communications Director and Grants Manager, Compatible Technology International

When creating products aimed at helping smallholder farmers in the developing world, it’s not safe to assume, “If you build it, they will come.”


For people who earn a few dollars a day, investing in a new tool or technology comes with a lot of risk. A marketing strategy with focused messaging and savvy materials is essential to build a trusted brand.


Marketing to the rural poor is challenging. To be effective, we structure our advertising with the local context in mind, whether it’s low literacy rates, varying languages, or the remoteness of agricultural communities. These constraints can be daunting, but despite the barriers, the interest in this emerging market is growing. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the successes and failures of companies large and small in this space. Successful products tend to focus both product design and brand messaging on three simple points:


1) Emphasize the income opportunity.


For most smallholders and small enterprises, the opportunity to increase income is paramount. Testimonials can help potential customers envision how a product can generate income. Testimonials are also more  relatable than complicated calculations of return on investment.


Even a product that doesn’t generate income directly can bring in income if it provides a service that can be rented out. For example, Nokia dominates the cell phone market in the developing world. As of 2011, Nokia accounted for more than 60 percent of mobile users in Africa. They don’t sell the cheapest phone, but they’ve focused on designing and promoting features that help their customers rent or share a phone, like the ability to have multiple contact lists and a call tracker that enables an owner to pre-set cost or time limits on phone calls. 


2) Show ease of use.

Products targeting smallholders and rural entrepreneurs should be easy to use and maintain. Marketing materials should reinforce this value. Use of simple drawings or photographs can help people understand and become comfortable with a new product.


When Partnering for Innovation grantee Compatible Technology International (CTI) introduced its grain processing tools in Senegal, villagers were given brochures along with in-person demonstrations. Brochures included illustrations showing the simple steps required to use the tools. Because paper and artwork is rare and valuable in these rural communities, the brochures also doubled as posters for families to keep and hang in their homes.




3) Convey quality and reliability.

A community in Senegal checks out the instructional brochure
on the Pearl Millet Processing Suite


Product reliability was consistently cited as the number one concern of potential customers in rural Africa when three solar lighting companies were compared in a 2013 study published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The companies found that providing marketing and service plans, backed by product features that showed durability, helped overcome customer concerns.


Quality products must be backed by quality marketing. Even remote, rural communities have been exposed to professional advertising, and shoddy marketing materials don’t inspire confidence in a product. Companies can show they are credible and convey trust by investing in uniforms for sales agents and providing service plans. Even the smallest details in packaging design and the type of paper used in marketing materials can make a big difference. 


When you think about it, marketing a product to smallholders and entrepreneurs in the developing world really isn’t all that different than designing for them. Success is rooted in listening to the client, thinking creatively, trying and failing, learning and adapting.


You can learn more about Compatible Technology International’s work with Partnering for Innovation in Senegal in Meet the Grantee and on CTI’s website.