Laugharn cites the system’s curriculum and structured messages as major selling points. Given the number of small farmers in the world, he sees potential for the system far beyond just East Africa.
"Hopefully it can set up a network between farmers themselves," Laugharn says. "That's the fastest way to spread a new idea or new uptake of technology." The most important question Backpack Farms needs to answer, he says is this: Where are things going? In other words, what happens when smart phones replace feature phones as the best selling phones in Africa and what happens when data networks become more reliable across the continent?
"We should all be thinking about what's down the curve," Laugharn says.
And that's exactly what Rachel Zedeck of Backpack Farms is doing.
She says she will plough the prize money from Africa Rural Connect into the development of the next phase of Kuza Doctor. The company is in the final phase of launching an Android app that Zedeck calls "a farming Bible." It builds on the SMS-based system, but also offers pictures, video links and in-depth data to help rural farmers in Kenya. The app will cost $1.25 as a kind of starter kit with information on two crops. The full app, priced at $4.25, will have information on 26 crops, including nine indigenous ones. It will also feature a community section to allow farmers to connect with each other, and exchange information on prices. "There is a lot of untapped talent in Kenya," she says.
Zedeck says that they hope to also sell the new Kuza Doctor tool in conjunction with an Android phone for around $75. That cost will include both the phone and the content for one year.
Future updates to the app, Zedeck says, will focus on providing small business training to farmers. There will also be a feature that allows farmers to take and upload pictures and videos (“AgTube”, she calls it) to let the community help diagnose pest and disease problems and showcase their work. And yes, says Zedeck, there will be a tablet version of the app as well eventually.
All that will require funding, of course. "Innovation is phenomenal," says Zedeck, "but if it doesn't scale then it's meaningless."
Long term, she says, an ad-funded model could work, with apps carrying adverts for products likely to appear to famers. But until that happens, she has been forced to use her own funds – including selling her house – to get the company up and running. She is also trying to drum up support from venture capitalists, but is finding it tough.
"We are not super sexy," admits Zedeck. "We are funny little farming company in Kenya that's launching a mobile tool that we believe is going to bring back the basics of a market-driven, demand economy."