How WeFarm is helping farmers share information via text across the globe
Technology has become an integral part in the growth of most economies in the world. Most of the countries especially in Africa have agriculture as their most economic generators, faming and exporting farm produces in various parts of the world.
According to The Economist, crop yields in Africa are between one-third and one-half of the global average. This explains why Africa has the potential to even feed the entire world if farmers continue to be empowered and fed with the right information on the type of crops and right time to cultivate. With the vast continent having 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, most of which unfarmed access to the right information is just the key to ensure this uncultivated land is put into goo use. This is exactly what WeFarm, a pioneering social enterprise is doing to is doing to help farmers across Africa and Latin America.
Launched in 2010, WeFarm is a pioneering peer-to-peer mobile platform that connects farmers around the world. Using the platform, users can ask and answer farming questions as well as share farming tips with other farmers around the world by sending a basic SMS. According to Kenny Ewan, who is the CEO and also one of the co-founders of WeFarm ”The idea was first to create an innovative communications platform to enable peer to peer knowledge sharing between this diverse group of producer partners around the world, who had a great deal of knowledge and ideas to share, but very limited access to tools that would enable this”
Kenny spent more than 7 years working in Peru with local farming communities on grassroots projects where he found inspiration for WeFarm. While in Peru, he was always impressed by the unique and low-cost solutions farmers would come up with, yet farmers living less than 20 miles away wouldn’t know about local innovations. This is how he started to think about how this information could be shared around the world and how he would make a platform that harnessed the power of peer-to-peer, as he believed that farmers are experts.
How WeFarm Works.
WeFarm provides a service to ask questions addressing anything from farming techniques to business ideas that can improve their lives.
”Access to relevant, useful information is one of the biggest challenge facing the 500 million small-scale farmers around the world. With WeFarm they can receive useful, peer-sourced answers from anywhere in the world, with the help of our team of volunteer translators, before being sent to other farmers all over the world, and it’s all available through any device, anywhere, even the most basic mobile phone” Kenny says.
Once a farmer has registered to the country-specific short code (for example, 22301 in Kenya), they can then send questions, answers and tips via SMS to the WeFarm number. Each text message is processed by WeFarm’s online platform, which then sends the question to the most relevant farmers in the local area, who can answer the question by replying with an SMS. A farmer usually receives 3-4 crowd-sourced answers within two hours of asking the question.
WeFarm is also not limited to English speaking countries alone, farmers from other foreign countries can also participate in asking and answering questions. Once messages are received in the WeFarm platform, they are also sent out around the world and translated into different languages by WeFarm’s network of volunteer translators.
”We utilize language students and multilingual volunteers because many of the farmers using WeFarm often use colloquial language, and sometimes make spelling mistakes due to low levels of literacy. Real translators can spot these mistakes and ensure that the questions are translated accurately” he adds.
This ensures that no farmer is left behind in accessing information.
According to WeFarm, main challenge it aims to address is the lack of access to information for the majority of people in the world. Statistics show that 75% of the world’s population has no internet access and more often than not it’s these people who most need better information and support services. However, according to a 2013 United Nations report, six billion of the world’s estimated seven billion people now have access to a basic mobile phone. In Kenya alone, 3 out of 4 people own a mobile phone and WeFarm harnesses the power and ubiquity of mobile technology, giving small-scale farmers the opportunity to share knowledge and connect with one another by SMS.
”WeFarm according to Kenny can thus can be described as “the internet for people without the internet”! With many of the latest advances in farming technology focused on online tools, WeFarm has returned to basic mobile technology and SMS as this was the reality of the situation on the ground”.
WeFarm’s target audience is primarily farmers in rural areas without internet access. However the social enterprise says it also want to provide a service for people with an interest in agriculture who live in more urban areas like people in Nairobi who might have a small plot of land where they grow their own vegetables. The service also offers an online version of the platform where agriculture students, enthusiast or people in cities can also access the service.
WeFarm has also had a very quick growth since its launch in Kenya in February and in Peru in August. The service currently has more than 24,000 farmers using the system and it aims to have 250,000 by Christmas. A target which Kenny Ewan says they will achieve.
The service has been very well received so far, recording over 60% monthly.
”We have seen people sharing lots of very valuable pieces of information. With advice from WeFarm Rose in Kenya for example managed to get her cows to produce 20 litres of milk a day, another farmer called Kepha saved more than half of his 50 chickens because he received advice on which medicine to give them when they fell sick” Kenny says.
He says the other thing that has been very encouraging to see is how it makes people feel like their knowledge is valuable. ”We have had lots of farmers say that they find it motivating to know that other farmers are doing similar things to them and that they have gained confidence after using WeFarm”
Being a Startup of course there are challenges WeFarm faces but Dennis Odera says it’s important to see these challenges as opportunities to learn. At the beginning, he says the biggest challenge was working out the best way to get the word out about WeFarm ”We have had to try lots of different things to find out what was most successful”
At the moment WeFarm is doing a combination of training days with farmers in co-operatives and radio shows. They are also trialling lots of different ways to reach farmers in Peru too as it’s a very different market to Kenya
Another big challenge he adds is working with a team of people all over the world ”We have people in London, Nairobi and Lima working for WeFarm. In order to ensure that everyone up to date with what is happening in the business we spend a bit of time every week on Skype having meetings”
This challenges have however not stopped them from aiming higher, in the summer of 2014 they won the Google Impact challenge which gave them funds to launch ‘WeFarm v1.0’ and start pushing towards scale.
Information is an essential ingredient in agricultural development and access to this information is what will continue making African countries and other countries across the globe bread baskets for the economoy and this is just what WeFarm is trying to do.