TOUBA TOUL, Senegal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Farmer Adama Faye holds out two handfuls of peanuts - in one weathered palm, the nuts are round and smooth, in the other, they are small and shriveled.
The weaker crop was grown by her son without fertilizer, using methods typical of their village in western Senegal, where farm supplies are expensive and hard to come by.
The large peanuts were grown on her plot, using fertilizer from a start-up that helps farmers save money throughout the year to pay for quality products and agricultural training.
“It’s a good lesson for him,” said Faye, 55, laughing and shaking her head in a yellow dress and head scarf, at home in Keur Lamane village in the district of Touba Toul.
Her son had thought the “myAgro” service was too expensive when she told him to sign up last year. Now that her yield is three times bigger than his, he has changed his mind, she said.
Smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa struggle to buy seeds and fertilizer every year, with low incomes and a lack of bank accounts making bulk purchases difficult, experts say.
But a mobile savings model gaining popularity in Senegal and Mali allows farmers to put away small amounts of cash whenever they can - a potentially life-changing innovation for families struggling with shrinking yields amid climate change.
As the planet warms, rainfall in West Africa is becoming more erratic, making access to fertilizer, drought-hardy seeds and other technology all the more necessary, farmers say.
“Every year we see the difference. The plants (with fertilizer) are bigger and taller,” said Faye.
She does not notice the added cost because she pays in increments of $1-$2 spread through the year.
This season, rain was scarce, and only the plot with fertilizer produced enough to keep the family from pulling children out of school and skipping meals, she said.
MyAgro, a social enterprise, has grown from working with 240 farmers in Mali in 2011 to 45,000 clients across Mali, Senegal and Tanzania, where it launched this year.
The group sells packages of supplies based on plot size. To pay, farmers buy scratch cards for small amounts from local vendors, who punch a code into their phones to register the money as savings in the farmers’ accounts.
If they reach their payment goal, the seeds and fertilizer are delivered just ahead of the first rain.
“Before, if we started saving money there were always family needs, and we would have to spend it,” said Faye, who has seven children and an extended family to support.
In Senegalese culture, when you have money, you share it - pitching in for weddings, babies and medical bills.
That made putting away cash from the October harvest to June planting nearly impossible, farmers said.
Now Faye buys a card whenever she has a good market day, and has no problem accumulating 25,000 CFA francs ($44) to buy fertilizer for her half-hectare of peanuts once a year.
Getting financial services to poor farmers across the developing world is a “massive problem”, said Steve Wiggins, an agriculture researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
Many need a basic way to save rather than credit or insurance, which are riskier, he said.
There are local savings groups all over Africa, sometimes supported by aid agencies, he noted.
But MyAgro says it is a pioneer of the “mobile layaway” model, which mimics the popular practice of buying small amounts of cellphone credit on scratch cards.
Moustapha Diouf, a 68-year-old peanut farmer in Touba Toul, said the rains had been irregular for the past three years.
Senegal touches West Africa’s Sahel, a semi-arid belt below the Sahara desert, where frequent droughts have caused widespread hunger in recent years.
Climate change is driving much drier conditions in the Sahel, which experienced a 50-percent hike in record dry months from 1980-2013, scientists said this month.
Innovations like drought-resistant seeds, insecticides and fertilisers are not available in many parts of the region, even if farmers could afford them, said Wiggins of ODI.
“Despite there being plenty of technology on the shelf by now, frustratingly rather few of them have got it,” he said.
MyAgro aims to close this supply gap, and teach farmers tricks for dealing with climate extremes - which it says can be even more valuable than the supplies.
Before joining, Diouf said he used manure as fertilizer and would spread it all over his field after the first rain.
Now he knows to wait to plant until the second or third rain to make sure the moisture will last, and to put fertilizer in small doses around each seed.
“There is no comparison” in terms of yields, he said. “You invest a little bit and earn more.”
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org/climate