A shopkeeper in Kenya

3 Principles for Providing Remote Support to Farmers and Small Businesses Around the World

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted farmers and entrepreneurs around the globe and has made it much more difficult for organizations to offer in-person support. How can these organizations provide this critical guidance remotely? TechnoServe identified three key principles for providing effective phone-based support when in-person training is not possible.

A shopkeeper in Kenya

Series: Resilience through COVID-19

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Medium.

As a business adviser for TechnoServe in Kenya, Alphonse Ouma Ochieng’ was accustomed to visiting shopkeepers. He and his colleagues would talk to them about their challenges and provide advice on good practices to improve the performance of their shops.

Things have changed with the coronavirus pandemic, however. His clients’ work as shopkeepers supplying essential goods and services to vulnerable communities has never been more important, but the entrepreneurs also face new challenges. How do they keep their shop stocked when customers are panic-buying food and cleaning supplies, and middlemen are raising prices? How do they maintain sales now that the government has imposed a curfew? How do they make sure that their shops don’t help to spread the disease?

At the same time that shopkeepers are tackling these new issues, travel restrictions and policies have made it more difficult for Alphonse and his peers to visit them and provide in-person support. How can organizations provide this critical support remotely?

Through TechnoServe, we have created a WhatsApp group where our trainer is sharing training materials. We are also discussing and sharing with each other insights on COVID-19 pandemic updates as communicated by the government.”
— Caroline Moses

At TechnoServe, we recently published research on best practices for remote learning and are using the findings to create remote versions of our entrepreneurship programs. Many of these programs are designed for entrepreneurs in developing countries who have at least limited access to a computer, but we have found that similar principles are applicable in low-resource environments where people instead rely on phones or smartphones to access information.

To reach these communities, it’s important to understand which tools your clients have access to, and be conscious of technological gaps related to gender and age. Once you’ve selected the right tools, we’ve found that there are three key principles for providing effective phone-based support:

  • Keep it short, simple, and on point
  • Keep it interactive
  • Keep it moving

Keep it short, simple, and on point

Most people find it difficult to watch long videos on their smartphones, and that certainly applies to busy entrepreneurs in the midst of a crisis. Training videos should be no more than two to three minutes long, and audio messages should be less than one minute.

Similarly, it’s best to stick to just a few simple, memorable messages. Keep the presentation straightforward, cutting out unnecessary words or graphics. Break longer, more complex topics into chunks.

Even for short content, it’s important to concisely introduce, then explain, then summarize. Aristotle may have pre-dated the debut of WhatsApp by 2,600 years, but his advice on rhetoric still stands: tell them what you will tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Keep it interactive

Connection is an essential part of the learning process, and it’s important to maintain that engagement in distance learning programs. One way our programs are doing that is by creating groups of learners, since people learn best in communities and can provide mutual support. If there are existing platforms that you can use, such as WhatsApp or Facebook groups, it’s easy to have moderated discussions.

There are also opportunities to engage clients with tasks. For instance, if you ask someone to implement a best practice for pruning her crops, or merchandising his shop’s goods, have them take a picture of it — or even better, a short (15–30 second) video — and post it. Through this kind of practice, you can foster increased engagement and connection with the community, and help the clients better understand the skill.

Keep it moving

We have heard from entrepreneurs that with everything going on in their world, it’s important that a support program be consistent. That’s why we work to create a structure and a rhythm to our remote support.

This starts by developing a “lesson plan” for a week of training. Program it out. For example, on day one you send an introduction to the topic by WhatsApp. On day two, you send a short video to watch. On day three, you ask them to practice something and send back a picture of it. On day four, you may send them a follow-up video, etc.

TechnoServe is already applying these ideas in practice to support coffee farmers in Puerto Rico, micro-finance agents in Mozambique, and shopkeepers in Kenya. So while Alphonse may not be able to make his usual shop visits, he has been featured in videos that are distributed to entrepreneurs.

For entrepreneurs, this kind of remote support is a vital tool as they deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “Through TechnoServe, we have created a WhatsApp group where our trainer is sharing training materials. We are also discussing and sharing with each other insights on COVID-19 pandemic updates as communicated by the government,” said Caroline Moses, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Kenya who had been struggling to manage her supplies and maintain sales during a government-mandated curfew. “We are also reminding ourselves about precautionary and health-related measures to undertake to avoid contracting or spreading the virus as we serve and interact with customers and suppliers.”

The coronavirus pandemic is creating new challenges, but with creative solutions, we can continue to provide effective support to entrepreneurs and farmers at the moments when they need it most.

Learn more about TechnoServe’s response to COVID-19.