By Brian Yatich
This new internet without internet service is promising to revolutionise farming activities in Africa and across the globe.
The growth of digital initiatives globally has sparked a range of user-friendly programs, from chat forums and photo-sharing sites to a now international network for farmers like ‘WeFarm‘.
Investors and entrepreneurs behind some of the world’s newest industries have started to put their money on what is now known as “ag-tech” one of the world’s oldest industry with an ambitious agenda to make sure there is enough food for the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet in the near future.
One such noble tech entrepreneurs with a cause is Kenny Ewan, CEO and co-founder at WeFarm, who came up with a peer-to-peer network for smallholder agronomists. The service targets farmers in rural areas who do not have access to the internet and enables them to share information, ask & answer questions and also get farm tips from other farmers across the globe.
After graduating from university, Ewan spent seven years living in South America. While working with indigenous agricultural communities there, he often saw innovative solutions being developed by farmers, yet farmers in nearby villages were rarely aware of these new innovative techniques.
He then joined Cafédirect Producers Foundation (CPF) in 2009, an independent UK charity that works with co-operatives of coffee, tea and sugar farmers across Africa and Latin America.
While he was there Kenny led the development of WeFarm as part of their start-up team – where farmers could share useful farming techniques with other farmers through their mobile phones.
According to Dennis Odera, WeFarm Business Consultant, who is based in Nairobi, he says that this platform is where farmers can get a chance to interact and share information on solutions relating to farming problems.
The idea is conceived from an ideological perspective of an internet without internet, where farmers communicate to a global front using SMS.
Kenny Ewan had an idea of how a virtual library of farming techniques and vital information would be incredibly valuable to farmers – Odera says.
He points out that once a farmer has registered with WeFarm by sending a free Short Messages Service (SMS) saying ‘JOIN KENYA’ to 22301 they can then ask any question on agriculture by sending a free SMS to the WeFarm number, beginning their SMS with ‘Q#’ the followed with the question.
“All questions are processed by our algorithm which determines which farmers to send the question to (locally, nationally and internationally). Other farmers receive questions by SMS, and can send their answers and solutions back by SMS. Each farmer who has asked a question should receive 3-5 answers within a couple of hours, and may also receive an answer from a different country within less than 24 hours” he says.
Odera joined WeFarm because he is passionate about innovation and enjoys the challenge of coming up with unique and creative solutions to problems.
He says that WeFarm has achieved lots of great strides ranging from the user numbers, generating revenue to user metrics with 44 per cent of users being active every month compared to twitter’s 18 per cent and the service has garnered a 90 day retention of 85 per cent compared to WhatsApp’s 77 per cent.
“These numbers are all fantastic, but I would have to say that our greatest achievement is our social impact. 70 per cent of our farmers has said that they have improved their livelihoods with the information they received through our service and we have loads of great stories about farmers saving sick livestock, diversifying into new crops, and starting micro businesses.” Odera narrates.
“We chose farmers because 90 per cent of the world’s 500 million smallholders still do not have internet access, so they don’t have any easy way to access information. These same farmers produce 70 per cent of the world’s food and are highly susceptible to climate change. With crowdsourced information from WeFarm they can improve their farms, yield, and ultimately improve their livelihoods” he says
The platform currently has 70,000 farmers using the service and over 10.6 million pieces of information have been shared through the WeFarm platform worldwide – all without any internet connection.
One of the major challenges, Odera says is getting their service to the rural communities.
“The majority of the small-scale farmers are located in remote areas with no internet access and limited access to other traditional forms of media. We have tried to overcome this challenge by trialling lots of different types of marketing strategies in order to reach our target audience” he explains.
The company scooped a MEFFYS Innovation Award for Technology in 2015, along with the Wazo Prize from the Climate Information Prize (CIP), and the company was also named one of the ‘Ideas from Europe’ by the EU Commission.
“The service is growing now more than ever, especially in Kenya. There is a huge number of farmers in Uganda too only a few months after launching there. Our goal is to reach 1 million farmers in the next 12 months so we need to increase our rate of growth but we are confident that we can hit the 1 million mark in 2017” he says.
Odera says that their goal for the next 12 months is to reach 1 million farmers within the countries they are operating in.
“By 2021 we aim to have reached 10 million farmers – to facilitate this we will likely launch in a range of other markets including Tanzania, India, Brazil, and much more,” He says.