This description of Tülin Akin’s work was prepared when Tülin Akin was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012
Tülin Akın is building a platform of information technologies to act as an enabling architecture for Turkey’s three million farmer families to fully and actively participate in the economy and society.
The New Idea
While information technologies are opening up new opportunities for sharing information and interacting in virtually every sector in Turkey, the agriculture sector and farmers themselves do not benefit from these remarkable tools. Tülin is bringing together these two unlikely friends—Turkish farmers and information technologies—to provide farmers up-to-date information, know-how, skills and professional development, while also creating opportunities for them to reach alternative markets by bypassing traditional intermediary structures.
Tülin established Tarımsal Pazarlama (Agricultural Marketing) and its web-portal www.tarimsalpazarlama.com in 2004. It is now Turkey’s first and main communication, e-learning and e-commerce media that meets a farmer’s every possible need. Accessed by farmers through a simple SMS message or by their children through Internet cafes, the portal is not only encouraging Internet usage for better farming, but also creating opportunities for inter-generational dialogue. Since its launch, it has served over 800,000 farmers as a one-stop virtual resource center and marketplace to meet with other farmers, agricultural engineers, veterinarians, agricultural firms and exporters.
Tülin is continuously creating services and products that are tailored to farmers’ needs to ensure that they participate in the value chains as full citizens and have full access to any type of information needed to improve their work and lives while also sharing their knowledge with the farmer community. Tülin is also addressing systematic challenges of Turkey’s agriculture sector by lobbying with the companies and public institutions. Tülin’s future plans include opening up the e-commerce part of her portal to the international markets to allow Turkish farmers to sell abroad, to establish “technology villages” which demonstrate how technology can be used in rural life to the maximum and to give women farmers a portal through which they can sell local agricultural products and handcrafts
Agriculture has an important role in Turkey’s economic and social fabric. Although it constitutes a relatively small portion in gross national product (12 percent) and exports (10 percent), it provides the livelihoods for one-third of the population and is the major source of employment in rural areas (over 70 percent). Turkey’s agricultural land constitutes 20 percent of the total agricultural land in the European Union, giving it a key role in the region. Despite this key role, the agriculture sector in Turkey faces structural problems in terms of access to investment, information, and technology. The immediate results are an agriculture sector with low levels of education among farmers, low efficiency and limited marketing, making it less and less attractive for investors and younger generations.
As a result, agricultural employment rates are in steady decline and many farmers are operating without critical agricultural information and know-how, significantly decreasing their efficiency and product quality. They also remain isolated from alternative markets, relying on the same archaic intermediary mechanisms to sell their crops year after year.
Information technologies offer numerous solutions to these problems, yet remain inaccessible for the large majority of the farmer population. As a result, most farmers are operating without up-to-date information and know-how on issues such as weather forecasts, diseases, market price quotes, new regulations and financial support opportunities, which is significantly decreasing their life quality and efficiency.
Tülin’s genius lies in the way in which she makes this unlikely friendship work between the agriculture sector and information technology. Since 2004, she has travelled to over 12,000 villages and identified widespread mobile phone usage and the expanding population as two key strengths of Turkey’s rural population. She bases her strategy on these existing resources and strengths. Her strategy enables farmers to use the familiar tool of SMS messages, which are already widely used among the rural population, yet also builds on the computer skills of the younger rural population (farmer’s children) who help their parents access the portal through internet cafes. In doing so, she not only encourages Internet usage but also creates opportunities for different generations to work together and learn from each other’s strengths. Today, she reaches over 800,000 farmers who post their products and access information on crops, prices, and legislation.
The second integral part of Tülin’s strategy is raising the agriculture sector’s profile as a target market for information technology companies, co-creating services and products that form the backbone of a series of hybrid value chains. She calls this “presenting agriculture in plazas,” where she aims to create win-win situations where companies gain new customers and farmers gain access to new services without any extra costs, resulting in new and innovative business models while also opening up new markets and undiscovered fields at the intersection of information technologies and farming.
This strategy also makes up the core of her business model, where Tülin charges companies consultancy fees that she then re-invests in research and development of her ideas or in piloting new innovations. Through her partnership with one of the country’s major phone operators, Tülin established the Farmers’ Club, a mobile subscription plan that offers free phone calls between farmers as well as SMS alerts with government information on new regulations and financial support, weather forecasts and market price quotes linked to their location and what they produce. Farmers are also offered lower priced handsets, discounts on farm machinery and opportunities to advertise their produce, significantly increasing their income, efficiency and sustainability. Income generated from this partnership gave birth to the Farmer’s Computer, another initiative to bring farmers closer to using technology.
Tülin has already introduced farmer-friendly mobile phone services, credit cards, computers and farm management software to the Turkish market. In doing so, she is building an ecosystem that will make it possible to fully integrate information technologies into the lives of farmers. Tülin is also starting to think in terms of the entire ecosystem. She is lobbying at the government level for credits to enable farmers to reach information technologies and tapping into the farmer’s chambers’ networks to reach the entire farmer population in Turkey.
Tülin’s father was a village school teacher and she spent the first years of her life travelling from village to village with her family, at times living in some of the country’s most impoverished areas. During these years, she was deeply influenced by the structural poverty that she observed and developed an intuitive understanding of the needs and sensibilities of rural populations.
Another great influence was her father’s idealism and commitment to his job. Her father inspired her with his firm belief that development will only be effective if it originates from within villages and rural populations. Tülin’s interest in rural development was not activated until much later, when she chose the newly opened department of agricultural marketing for her studies.
It was during her studies and search for an internship that she realized Turkey’s agriculture sector and farmers did not exist on the internet. Feeling the classroom environment was not enough to fully understand the scope of the problems facing the sector, she set on a countrywide road trip to visit villages and agricultural fairs. It was during this time that she saw farmers losing their crops because of diseases that could easily be prevented or selling their produce for much less than its value to intermediaries due to the lack of any other options. She started dreaming of the possibility of a website that would bring together farmers with companies, information and application. She stopped going to class and started to explore the feasibility of her dream by going from one village to another, from one agriculture fair to the next.
In 2004, at 22, Tülin established Turkey’s first e-learning and e-commerce media to meet a farmer’s every possible need in areas such as products, marketing and legislation. At the time, she was still a university student. She managed to reach her first 20,000 users through guerilla marketing at agriculture fairs, after which she caught the attention of agriculture companies who started to advertise on her website. A true entrepreneurial spirit, Tülin soon started knocking on the doors of major banks, phone operators and computer producers to convince them to invest in agriculture and farmers. She managed to convince them to invest in infrastructure that would ease farmers’ access to her portal, which resulted in her reaching 800,000 farmers all over Turkey in 2012.
Often known as the “Internet girl” among Turkey’s farmers, Tülin says she will not stop until the day comes in which using information technologies for agriculture becomes the norm and her work is perceived as mainstream.