Could the mobile phone become a farmer's most important tool?

Image Credit: Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Could the mobile phone become a farmer's most important tool?

Shockwaves ran through the country. Videos showing litres upon litres of surplus milk being poured out onto floors streamed through television screens. Across Kenya questions were asked: Couldn't something else have been done with the milk? Couldn't it have been taken somewhere it's needed? That was in February 2010. Months later, Kenya would experience her worst drought in 60 years. The superstitious among us would call that karma. The reality is that Kenya's jagged agricultural landscape, coupled with a food distribution system encumbered by a myriad of infrastructural, social, environmental and political challenges makes for an extremely complex situation.

Born of frustration

The beginnings of M-shamba are reminiscent of Isaac Newton's apple or Archimedes' Eureka! moment. One evening, as Calvince Okello -the creator of M-shamba - was watching the news at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) where he studied biomechanical and processing engineering, a particular feature left him at his wits end. 

The Eastern part of Kenya was suffering from severe famine while the Western part had registered a bumper harvest with maize even rotting on farms. This stark contrast of pockets plenty amidst areas of serious lack was enough to push Calvince to think of a solution. He attended a lecture the following day that would set M-shamba in motion. 

But how could this issue be tackled?

During the lecture, Calvince narrowed down the problem to a serious lack of information. Various research institutions and government bodies held a wealth of information on good crop and animal management practices, including strategies to adapt to climate change, which due largely to ineffective communication channels would not trickle down to the smallholder farmer who needed it the most.

Without this information farming was reduced to a hit and miss activity which for the struggling smallholder farmer, and a nation that still battles to feed her people, was a less than ideal state of affairs. He pondered ways to bridge this information gap.

More mobile phones than agricultural extension workers

In Kenya, over 5 million small-scale farmers rely on around 5,500 agricultural extension workers for advice and information. With a ratio of one extension worker to over 1,000 farmers, Kenya’s farmers aren’t getting the support they need. 

Africa is currently the second largest mobile market in the world with over 70% of Kenyans owning a mobile phone. It dawned on Calvince. He could use the mobile phone as a platform to disseminate this vital information. Partnering with co-founder Gordon Owiti, he worked to make M-shamba a reality.

How does it work?

M-shamba is a cross-platform mobile application. It works on both smart and low-end phones (using basic SMS / USSD) and is also accessible through the web. It is gearing up to be a one-stop shop for all a farmer’s needs. To access the platform, one must create an account and pay a monthly subscription fee.

“This is a unique new technology that gives information to farmers. This information is stored in a chip in the phone memory and enables the farmer to receive the latest information on various aspects of farming,” says Calvince.

A social network for farmers

M-shamba is however more than just an information service. It is also a platform where farmers can interact with one another either through SMS, web or mobile app. Farmer's groups; research institutions; NGOs; government agencies and credit providers are also easily accessible to farmers through M-shamba. Farmers are able to receive tailor-made alerts on their phones based on pre-selected preferences such as location, types of crops grown or animals reared.

Managing post-harvest waste

M-shamba endeavours to curb agricultural waste through a tool called Beba Bidhaa Kiswahili for ‘carry goods’. Through this tool, M-shamba’s farmers are provided access to various transport agencies that are in turn able to collect and ferry farmer’s goods to various marketplaces. This not only saves the farmer time and money, but also significantly reduces post-harvest waste mostly experienced by farmers who do not have ready channels to offload their goods.

A shield from the unscrupulous middleman

In the past two decades, Kenya’s government expenditure on agriculture has dropped dramatically from 10% to less than 5% of the national budget. Investments in the development of rural markets and roads have significantly slowed. Smallholder farmers have thus been left at the mercy of middlemen who take undue advantage of the situation buying produce at unreasonably low prices. With M-shamba information on prevailing market prices is just one SMS away, this has enabled registered farmers to demand fair prices for their produce, positively impacting their economic standing.

An online marketplace

M-shamba also connects farmers to potential buyers of their produce through an online marketplace. Designed to promote trade of agricultural commodities, the marketplace ensures accessibility through any of the platforms (SMS, mobile app and web).

To transact in the market place, one must register either as a farmer, buyer or transporter. Each user type is presented with a specific interface and options. Farmers can post their produce for sale by uploading pictures, available quantities, contact information, price and a product description (depending on the chosen platform) to the marketplace where it is indexed and can then be searched for by potential buyers.

What's in a name?

Shamba is the Kiswahili world for farm and M- denotes mobile phone technology. As a complete word mshamba means someone who isn't quite refined by urban standards. The creators of M-shamba chose to repurpose the name and give it a hi-tech appeal so that even the savvy CEO would no longer view farming as a mshamba activity but one that even refined white collar workers could participate in with pride. 

“I would like to see CEOs developing small gardens even at the back of their urban homes, this is a way to enhance food security.” says co-founder Gordon Owiti. 

Through M-shamba he hopes to help re-brand farming, making it a knowledge-based undertaking that involves all levels of the society, based on the latest technological initiatives.

An Award-winning innovation

M-shamba received an award from former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki during the African Forum on Science Technology and Innovation (STI) as one of the top innovations in 2012. It was also the best innovation during the Innovate For Africa enterprise competition and again occupied the top slot as the best app in agriculture category during the Safaricom Appstar Challenge in the same year. And went on to win top prize at the Transform Kenya Awards in 2014 where it emerged best in its category. 

The scalability challenge

While M-shamba is a great innovation, it has still not arrived at a level of growth where its impact can be felt nationally. Since its inception in 2011, it has only managed approximately 8,000 registered users and is gearing up to register a further 25,000 this year (2015). As a pioneer in its field it has, however, provided the basis for other innovations such as Mfarm. U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Mfarm during his address to the Kenyan nation, which hosted the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in late July 2015. Mfarm has done a little better with 14,000 registered users since its inception in 2012. [Disclaimer: numbers may have changed since the publication of this article.]

The dawn of a new farming era

M-shamba may not have broken through the glass ceiling but it is certainly an idea whose time has come. A concept that will grow from strength to strength with each new innovation modelled after it. It may be that in the not-so-distant future the typical smallholder farmer will leave home at the crack of dawn not only with a straw hat, hoe and packed lunch; but also with a mobile phone tucked away safely to keep up with the latest information and ensure a successful day of farming.