Kenya: Farmers use SMS to find the best market (AlertNet)

| May 2, 2011

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William Muriuki and his wife Ruth inspect their vegetable farm in the tiny village of Karimagachiije, 15 kilometres outside Meru town in central Kenya. Their cabbages, onions and Irish potatoes are ready to go to market. But the question is where.

The 73-year-old farmer says that identifying the best market never used to be a problem, explaining, “It was easy to tell what vegetables were in season in a particular area, so we knew the most appropriate places to sell our farm produce.”

But the changing climate has disrupted marketing patterns. Mr. Muriuki says, “It is no longer as predictable as it was. We have to physically identify places with high demand.”

Until fairly recently, local farmers could be sure that rains would start around the 25th of March each year. By the end of April, most vegetables would be in season, resulting in low demand in nearby markets. But in much of the Eastern Province, the rains were delayed or did not arrive at all. Thus, farmers from the central region knew they could get a good price for their produce in the east.

But that’s no longer the case. Mr. Muriuki explains: “In the past few years, I have seen rains come much earlier than expected, or very late. At times, it rains in Eastern Province much earlier or at the same time as it does here, or it fails to rain in both areas.”

In these challenging conditions, Mr. Muriuki turned to technology to help him find the right market.

On his farm, Mr. Muriuki pulls a mobile phone from his pocket to compose a text message. He writes the word “price,” followed by “cabbage,” then the place name “Embu.” He sends the message to a code number, 3535. Almost immediately, he receives a reply stating: “Cabbage Ext Bag 126kg selling at Ksh400 in Embu as of 2011-04-01.”

This message tells him that a standard bag of cabbages, weighing about 126 kilos, has been selling for 400 Kenyan shillings (about $5 U.S.) in Embu town since the first of April.

Mr. Muriuki composes another message, but writes “Nairobi” instead of Embu. The response tells him that the same quantity of cabbage is selling at 2,100 shillings (more than $26 U.S.) in the Kenyan capital − more than five times the price in Embu.

Once he calculates transport costs to Nairobi and Embu, Mr. Muriuki can identify which market is likely to give him more profit. Sending each text message costs 10 shillings (around 12 U.S. cents).

Mr. Muriuki says that finding the right market has been the biggest challenge for farmers in the recent past. He adds, “But now, technology is slowly and surely liberating us.”

Mr. Muriuki and his wife have been growing cabbages, tomatoes, Irish potatoes, bananas, onions and other vegetables for the past 10 years. The up-to-date market information they can now access from their mobile phone is invaluable in helping them track changes in market prices.

They use a system called M-Farm, a mobile phone application created by three female students at Nairobi’s Strathmore University.

M-Farm is a non-subscription service that offers farmers real-time information about market prices across the country via their cell phones. It has been adopted by thousands of Kenyan farmers.

The M-Farm team has turned the service into a fully fledged business with at least two agents positioned in each of Kenya’s five major agricultural cities: Nairobi, Eldoret, Mombasa, Kisumu and Kital.

The agents feed accurate information into the M-Farm database each week. In smaller towns, the job is done by selected farmers.

Jamilla Abass is a member of the team that developed the service. She says, “Our ultimate target is to have farmers all over the country using this service, so that they can get real-time price information without involving brokers.”

The M-Farm team is now developing other services for farmers, such as connecting farmers who want to buy or sell the same products, so they can trade in bulk and get the best price.