Bishop Joseph G. Gathonjo presses three- five- five- five on the worn-out keypad of his blue and grey Nokia phone. By texting these numbers, Bishop Gathonjo answered “yes” to the question, “Have the seeds germinated?” His text response is part of his farmer organization’s involvement in a project called The DrumNet.
DrumNet is an SMS-based support service for small-scale farmers. It aimed to improve farmer access to agricultural information, markets and loans in order to boost agricultural productivity.
Dr. Julius Okello is a researcher at the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Kenya. He worked on the DrumNet project. He explains that farmers involved in the initiative were introduced to sunflower farming. In order to grow and sell sunflowers, the farmers needed information and suppliers. DrumNet connected farmers to good seed suppliers and buyers, all through text messaging.
The project started by organizing farmers into a group. The group was entered into the DrumNet system and farmers were sent an SMS informing them that they were members of the project. As members, they could access inputs such as sunflower seeds. The farmers were also given technical advice via their mobile phones. At planting time, farmers received an SMS asking, “Have you planted yet?” The farmers texted or called back to say “yes” or “no.” Each farmer spent one Kenyan shilling to send an SMS.
Farmers received additional information at different points in the growing season. They received messages reminding them to weed and asking them if they had harvested their sunflowers. Dr. Okello says the text messages acted as a reminder for the farmers. It also allowed DrumNet to keep track of what was going on in the field. The biggest problem for the farmers was bats eating the sunflowers. So, the farmers were sent an SMS asking, “Are you chasing the bats?”
Every farmer in the project also opened a bank account. The bank provided them with loans to purchase inputs. They were also linked to a buyer, giving them access to a reliable market that paid a good price. All this was achieved through mobile phones.
The farmers earned more money because they were better linked to markets and didn’t have to deal with intermediaries. An evaluation of the DrumNet project showed that the farmers also had better access to food and medical care, and were better able to pay their children’s school fees.
Though the DrumNet project ended last year, many farmers are still very excited about the opportunities that SMS technology has created. The buyers they connected with through DrumNet continue to purchase from them. In some cases, buyers have offered the farmers agricultural financing, all through their continued use of SMS.
Ellyphalet Osuri Omoro is a farmer in Nyanza province who participated in DrumNet as part of the Kinyanya Farmers Group. He says farmers are very happy with what DrumNet has allowed them to do. He explains: “Once our first harvest was collected, our registered numbers doubled.” As a result of the project, many other farmers want to register with the Kinyanya group and to grow sunflower too.