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Backpack farm targets growth in Africa

About the author

Clark is the technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and US public radio co-production. For the past seven years, he has also hosted The World's Technology Podcast, a weekly audio offering that spins the globe in search of the latest and greatest in technology stories. He tweets at @worldstechpod and can be found on Facebook.

A Ugandan walks through a fieldcarrying a bucket of sorghum (Copyright: Getty Images)

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Meet the start-up that takes a compact approach to agriculture in Africa.

 “We've been called 'the McDonald's of farming'," Rachel Zedeck says with a laugh. The former development worker is the founder of a start-up called Backpack Farm, which aims to help farmers in East Africa grow more crops, more food and ultimately earn money.

"The reality is that Africa is the breadbasket of the world, and in eastern and sub-Saharan Africa, the way to impact the vast majority of human beings is through farming," she says.

It is a simple idea. The company sells smallholder farmers a backpack stuffed full of seeds, irrigation, “green” chemicals and tools along with training manuals and advise on how to farm efficiently. It can cost up to $2,000, but at that price also includes a drip irrigation kit and water tank. Backpack Farm says that while the cost might seem high, it's one seventh of what those materials would cost commercially. And it claims that the pack, used properly, can double or triple crop yields.

The McDonalds moniker comes in because the company offers franchises, meaning Backpack Farm sales and training centres have sprouted in various cities and towns throughout Kenya hoping to tap into the estimated 100 million farmers in East Africa, and 27 million in Kenya alone."My goal is to impact the lives of a million farmers by 2017," says Zedeck.

Just to be clear: Backpack Farm is not targeting subsistence farmers. It's most definitely a for-profit venture. "This is business, not aid," Zedeck emphasizes. She is targeting the millions of commercial and semi-commercial farmers who own two to five acres of land, and earn between three and five thousand dollars a year. These are the folks, Zedeck says, who have the commitment and determination to improve yields, and who are already supplying local and export markets with their products. 

The backpacks are the most eye-catching part of the idea, but the business is really built on agricultural training. The firm already offers 47 different classes on everything from conservation farming, to water management and soil fertility, along with specific instruction on growing more than two dozen different crops, including maize, sorghum and mangoes. 

But Zedeck says she realized early on that to have the impact she wanted, she needed to find a way to make this information more widely available. And that meant using the tool many Kenyan farmers already held in their hands - a cell phone. Along with the NGO Mercy Corps, the firm built and trialled a text-based agricultural education platform called Kuza Doctor (Kuza is the Swahili word for "growing").

It allows farmers using low-end phones to receive information via SMS, in English and Swahili, on growing 20 different crops. The tips are not doled out randomly. Users of the system begin by answering a series of questions: What do you want to grow? What is the soil like? Do you have water resources? As a farmer answers, he or she can then receive more specific information on things such as soil pH, composting, and drip irrigation.

"What we do is help farmers be better green farmers," Zedeck says, noting that the company’s emphasis on environmentally friendly techniques.

‘Not sexy’

Kuza Doctor got a boost recently when it won the "Young Farmers Idea Contest” sponsored by Africa Rural Connect, an online project of the National Peace Corps Association that fosters collaborative thinking to generate ideas to help solve rural Africa’s greatest challenges. "I think it was the delivery method that appealed to me," says Peter Laugharn, a seasoned aid worker and one of the judges of the contest. "You've got specialized knowledge in African countries, but it tends to be centred in the capital cities or a couple of provincial towns. Getting it out to people is the real challenge. So, [this is] a game-changer."

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."

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