Mobile phone app aids farmers in Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 2 -- John Wang’ombe lives in rural Kinangop, more than 60 miles from Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. Still, he's connected to the rest of the country and the world through his mobile phone.

A message alert comes through. Wang'ombe checks his phone, then makes an announcement:

"A sack of carrots is going for KSH 2500 ( $31.25) in Nairobi."

Wang’ombe is a small-scale farmer. He grows snow peas for foreign markets and carrots and cabbages for domestic markets. His young family lives off the land.

It's a tough life, but thanks to M-Farm, a mobile phone application created by three university students in Nairobi, Wang'ombe's business is thriving. He expects to export 11 tons of snow peas in a year.

M-Farm is a non-subscription mobile phone service that gives farmers information about market prices across the country through text messages. It was created by Strathmore University students Jamilla Abass, Susaneve Oguya and Linda Kwamboka to make the market more transparent to farmers.

The idea won a cash prize of KSH 1 million ($125,00) at a competition sponsored by HumanIPO, an entrepreneurial assistance organization, in November.

M-Farm's target audience is the small scale farmers in rural areas who do not have adequate access to information. Currently, a pilot program including 1,000 farmers is being run in Kinangop.

M-Farm's developers, all of whom are women, and Wang'ombe are a reflection of a technological revolution in Kenya that will "reorder Kenyan society," said Reuben Marwanga, the dean of the the Information Technology department at Strathmore University.

“Old economic orders and social boundaries will be destroyed, and new ones created,” he said.

Since 2000, the Information Communication Technology sector in Kenya has been growing by an average 23 percent per annum, the World Bank reported.

By the end of the 1990s, there were 20,000 mobile phone owners in the country. The Communication Commission of Kenya currently estimates that 23 million Kenyans own mobile phones. That's most of the adult population. Mobile phones have doubled internet access and improved access to financial services.

Mobile phones are an integral piece of Kenya's Vision 2030 plan, which aims to improve economic, political and social development by 2030. One of the plan's economic goals is to transform Kenya into an information-rich society. Applications like M-Farm are a central part of these development plans.

Wang’ombe and fellow farmer Alfred Gitonga were the first two farmers to use the service. They say that it has given them bargaining power when it comes to dealing with the middlemen who buy their produce.

“We know the real prices. They cannot cheat us," Gitonga said. "Before M-Farm, they used to suck our money like ticks after blood."

Wang’ombe noted a 50 percent profit increase after he started using M-Farm.

“Before, I sold a kilogram of snow peas for 80 KSH ($1), now I sell it at 120 KSH ($1.50),” he said.

The technology was easy to adopt because mobile phones have become very cheap in Kenya. Both Gitonga and Wang’ombe use phones that sell for about $25.

Technology is helping farmers like Wang’ombe but “it is not a panacea for all our problems,” Marwanga said.

This is especially visible in Kinangop. The farmers have mobile phones, but they do not have supporting infrastructure. Good roads are scarce, and so is electricity.

“If you live in a rural area in Kenya, you’re like a third class citizen,” Gitonga said as he made his regular 1.8-mile walk to a nearby town, the nearest available place to charge his phone.

Kinangop is in Kenya's fertile highlands, but it's very dry this time of year, drier than usual, the farmers say.

“Globe warming,” Wang’ombe calls it. Farmers like Wang’ombe are tackling these climatic conditions with little information.

“My cabbages dried up this season,” Wang’ombe said as he watched his five year old son pick at dry cabbage leaves in the farm near his house. “We got the wrong weather reports, but there was no one to complain to.”

M-Farm will soon provide weather information in addition to market prices, said Oguya, one of the program's developers.

“We want to liaise with one of the universities, to use the data they gather and send it to the farmers,” she said.

In addition to providing information, the phone service could also act as a voice of the farmers.

“We want it to become a social network where they can air their issues,” Oguya said.

Despite their progress, finances remain one of the biggest challenges facing start-up innovations like M-Farm.

“There is an investment gap," Marwanga said. "The companies are not big enough to attract funding and many could collapse without the money."

The HumanIPO award granted to M-Farm last year was spent up on implementing the pilot service. Although there is an agreement with mobile phone service providers that allows revenue to flow back into the company, it is not enough to cover the expansive ambitions of M-Farm.

“The government needs to step in and fill in this gap," Marwanga said. "Otherwise we will not achieve our Vision 2030 and most of these vulnerable start-ups will fall apart."