How do you get people to do things differently? Make it easy

  • By Laurie Goering
  • 07/04/2017

In this 2013 file photo, farmer Bintou Samake plants beans while carrying her son Mahamadou on her back at a farm in Heremakono, Mali. REUTERS/Joe Penney


What’s the most effective way to get people to change what they do? Make it easy for them.

When myAgro, a business for social good in Mali and Senegal, set out to help the poorest farmers earn more income, they settled on a clear plan: Find ways to help them save cash, a little at a time, to be able to afford top-quality seeds and fertiliser when the planting season came.

But holding onto cash for the nine months between the last harvest and the next planting season is tough in a place where incomes are small, and banks and other safe places to stash savings are rare. Opportunities to spend it – on food, medicine, weddings or a range of other things – are just too frequent and tempting, said Anushka Ratnayake, myAgro’s founder.

So her group came up with a plan: Sell scratch cards at the village shop, with a code buyers can punch into their mobile phone, which then registers the money as savings in their myAgro account. By buying a card, farmers get to satisfy the urge to shop and spend, while locking away small amounts of cash at a time rather than having to come up with big sums at planting time.

“It’s turned savings into shopping. You get to go to the store, you get a scratch card, you get a fun text message afterward,” Ratnayake said – all ways of getting a bit of instant gratification from savings.

Five years into the project, myAgro now expects to have 30,000 farmers using improved seeds and fertilisers in 2017 – and many have seen their incomes double,  Ratnayake said.


Nafeesa Remtilla of the Mulago Foundation, which invests cash for social good, said the key to making such effective change is to “make it as easy as possible for the person to do things differently and take out any barriers to changing this behaviour”.

Taking advantage of human biases – from the need to belong to the desire for status and recognition – can also be hugely helpful, she said.

Getting a first group of people to make a change together, and making it feel aspirational rather than burdensome, can be much easier than persuading individuals to change, she said.

“There’s a bandwagon effect. When everyone is doing something that looks good, everybody else wants to do it as well,” she said.

Something as simple as having a prize – a ribbon or badge that can be publicly worn – for the farmer who produces the best crop of the year can also be surprisingly effective, she said.

“How about having an awards ceremony for the best farmer? It creates status for free, and creates aspiration,” she said.

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