Kenya: Text message network allows farmers without internet to share ideas (Trust)

| December 11, 2017

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One morning last February at her farm in Meru, eastern Kenya, Catherine Kagendo realized that one of her cows could not stand.

She recalls, “It was lying on its side, had lost its appetite, and was breathing heavily.”

With her husband, she decided to turn to WeFarm for help. WeFarm is a network of small-scale farmers who exchange information and advice via text messages.

Mrs. Kagendo texted, “One of my lactating cows cannot stand.” Within an hour, she received a flurry of suggestions, including, “Feed your cow with minerals rich in calcium,” and “Make sure the cowshed is clean and well-drained so the animals don’t slip.”

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

Local farm experts say many small-scale Kenyan farmers lack good information on how to manage problems, from dry spells to diseases. Often, these farmers can’t read or access the internet.

As a result, the farmers sometimes lose their harvest or their animals.

WeFarm makes it possible for people to ask questions by text message and receive advice from their peers. Kenyan farmers started using the tool in 2014. WeFarm has recently expanded to Uganda and Peru.

The service is free 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.

When her animals were ill or her maize crops too dry, Mrs. Kagendo used to hire an extension officer to help. She explains, “But we had to pay a fee ranging from 500 to 2,000 Kenyan shillings [US$5-20], and most of the time the officer didn’t even explain their diagnosis.”

The expense cut into the family’s income and didn’t help them understand the problems they were facing.

She says, “We cannot even afford a smartphone to go online, so finding credible information was near impossible.”

WeFarm’s founders realized that farmers living within a few kilometres of each other were facing the same challenges, but had no way to communicate about them. So they created a platform to connect them.

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

Although the WeFarm platform also exists online, Mr. Bwika says more than 95% of users access it offline.

Joseph Kinyua is a vegetable farmer from Meru. He uses WeFarm for at least 30 minutes a day.

He says: “It’s taught me anything from using pest control traps to ensuring that my sprinklers don’t put out too much water. And I know the methods are proven and tested by other farmers.”

That knowledge has helped improve the quality of the kale he grows. Mr. Kinyua adds, “I can now sell a kilo at the market for 70 shillings [US$0.66] compared to 50 [US$0.47] previously.”

Mr. Bwika explains that, while the platform might receive dozens of replies to a question, it only sends the user a selection of responses that are judged to be correct.

He says the questions and the advice also help track disease outbreaks and extreme weather spells. Mr. Bwika says WeFarm shares information with governments and non-governmental organizations to help monitor and manage these challenges.

Not everyone shares this optimism, however.

Mary Nkatha is a farmer from Meru. She says she found it hard to implement some of the recommendations she received from WeFarm without the practical guidance of an expert.

She asks, “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?”

Fredrick Ochido is a dairy farming consultant based in Kenya. He worries that the platform may be entrenching farmers’ bad habits, rather than helping them keep up with new trends.

More than 100,000 people currently use the WeFarm platform in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru. Its operators hope to reach one million farmers in the next year. They also plan to expand to other countries, including Tanzania.

This story was adapted from an article titled, “Text message network connects offline farmers in Kenya,” published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the original article, please see:

Photo: Apaikunda Andason in Kikwe village, Tanzania, uses a smartphone to interact with her local radio station