Text­book case of a ser­vice tai­lored to farm­ers’ needs

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Caro­line Wam­bui

WHEN she woke up one morn­ing in Fe­bru­ary, Cather­ine Ka­gendo re­alised that one of her cows could not stand.

“It was ly­ing on its side, had lost its ap­petite and was breath­ing heav­ily,” she told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion from her farm in Meru, eastern Kenya.

With her hus­band she de­cided to turn to WeFarm, a text-based net­work of small-scale farm­ers, for help.

Within an hour, her text, “One of my lac­tat­ing cows can­not stand,” gen­er­ated a flurry of sugges­tions, from “feed your cow with min­er­als rich in cal­cium” to “make sure the cow shed is clean and well-drained so the an­i­mals don’t slip”.

“I re­alised our cow had milk fever, so I gave it cal­cium-rich feed and it was stand­ing again within hours,” Ka­gendo said.

She is one of many Kenyan smallscale farm­ers who lack good in­for­ma­tion, mostly due to a lack of in­ter­net ac­cess, on how to man­age prob­lems from dry spells to dis­eases, lo­cal farm ex­perts say.

Help from peers

As a re­sult, such farm­ers of­ten lose their har­vest or an­i­mals, they said. But WeFarm, a farm­ers’ net­work launched in Kenya in 2014 and more re­cently ex­panded to Uganda and Peru, al­lows peo­ple to ask a ques­tion by text mes­sage and re­ceive ad­vice from their peers.

The ser­vice, whose Scot­tish co­founder Kenny Ewan de­scribes it as “the in­ter­net for peo­ple with no in­ter­net”, is free to use and only re­quires a mo­bile phone. Farm­ers text ques­tions to a lo­cal num­ber, and WeFarm trans­mits the mes­sage to users with sim­i­lar in­ter­ests in the area, tap­ping into their knowl­edge.

“We want farm­ers to get an­swers to their prob­lems with­out need­ing to ac­cess the in­ter­net, so the in­for­ma­tion is avail­able to all,” said WeFarm mar­ket­ing head Mwinyi Bwika.

Al­though the plat­form also ex­ists on­line, more than 95 per­cent of users choose to use it off­line, he said.

Ka­gendo said that when her an­i­mals were ill or her maize crops too dry, she used to have to hire an ex­ten­sion of­fi­cer to help solve the prob­lem.

“But we had to pay a fee rang­ing from 500 to 2 000 Kenyan shillings (R62-R250) and most of the time the of­fi­cer didn’t even ex­plain their di­ag­no­sis,” she said.

That cut into her fam­ily’s in­come and left them no bet­ter able to un­der­stand the dis­eases fac­ing their cat­tle and their crops. “We can­not even af­ford a smart­phone to go on­line, so find­ing cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion was near im­pos­si­ble,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing to Bwika, small-scale farm­ers of­ten lack the in­for­ma­tion they need be­cause of a lack of cash – most live on less than a dol­lar a day – as well as poor in­ter­net con­nec­tion and low lit­er­acy lev­els.

“Ewan re­alised that farm­ers liv­ing just sev­eral kilo­me­tres from each other were fac­ing the same chal­lenges, but with no way to com­mu­ni­cate about them. So he cre­ated a plat­form to con­nect them,” Bwika said.

Joseph Kinyua, another farmer from Meru who grows veg­eta­bles, said he spends at least 30 min­utes a day us­ing WeFarm. “It’s taught me any­thing from us­ing pest con­trol traps to en­sur­ing that my sprin­klers don’t put out too much wa­ter,” he said. “And I know the meth­ods are proven and tested by other farm­ers.”

The knowl­edge has helped im­prove the qual­ity of the kale he grows, he said, enough that “I can now sell a kilo at the mar­ket at 70 shillings com­pared to 50 shillings pre­vi­ously.”

While the plat­form might re­ceive dozens of replies to a ques­tion, it only sends out to the user a se­lec­tion of an­swers judged cor­rect, Bwika said.

How­ever, it uses the ques­tions and ad­vice re­ceived to help track dis­ease out­breaks or ex­treme weather spells, and shares those in­sights with govern­ments and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions, Bwika said.

“In do­ing so we hope to pre­vent dis­ease out­breaks and track prob­lems be­fore they oc­cur,” he said.

Not ev­ery­one shares this op­ti­mism, how­ever.

Mary Nkatha, a farmer from Meru, said that she found it hard to im­ple­ment some of the rec­om­men­da­tions she re­ceived from WeFarm with­out the prac­ti­cal guid­ance of an ex­pert. “If I am told to in­ject my cow with some­thing, how do I make sure I do it in the right place? And where do I find the equip­ment?” she asked.

Fredrick Ochido, a Kenyan-based con­sul­tant on dairy farm­ing, also wor­ries that the plat­form may be en­trench­ing farm­ers’ poor use of tech­nol­ogy, rather than help­ing them keep up with new trends.

The WeFarm plat­form has at least 100 000 cur­rent users in Kenya, Uganda and Peru, and its op­er­a­tors hope to reach one mil­lion farm­ers in the next year. They also aim to ex­pand the ef­fort to other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Tan­za­nia.

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