'Telephone farmers' reaping the benefits of agri-tech

By Tom Jackson
Business reporter

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionKenyan "telephone farmers" can keep an eye on their out-of-town farms while working in the city

A new breed of tech-savvy farmers is emerging throughout Kenya.

Sometimes called "telephone farmers", they are making use of a growing number of technologies and platforms to help them choose and manage their crops more efficiently.

And mobile devices are giving a growing number of them the ability to do this while continuing to live and work in the city.

Cloud farming

Tech giant IBM's EZ-Farm project - currently being trialled in Kenya - is exploring how sophisticated data analytics can help farmers keep in touch with what is really happening on their out-of-town smallholdings.

Sensors strategically placed around the farm monitor water tank levels, the amount of moisture in the soil, as well as the performance of irrigation equipment.

image copyrightIBM
image captionWater scientist Dr Kala Fleming is leading the EZ-Farm project for IBM

And infrared cameras measure rates of photosynthesis, which can indicate whether crops are being watered too much or too little.

All this data is streamed wirelessly to the IBM Cloud and accessed by the farmer via a smartphone app.

"These 'telephone farmers' can often only travel to visit their farms at weekends," says IBM lead water and agriculture researcher, Dr Kala Fleming. "They are looking for smart solutions to better manage the water resources needed to irrigate and grow their crops.

"Creating a digital network of small-scale farms and water users also provides opportunities for other organisations looking to launch value-added services to generate revenue and increase productivity."

But not too many small-scale farmers will be able to afford such hi-tech equipment.

Information is power

There are cheaper mobile solutions that can have an equally empowering effect for some farmers, who have often suffered from lack of information and poor advice.

Good seed in the wrong place is no longer good seed

Aline O'Connor, Agri Experience
Harun Munuve

More than 80% of sub-Saharan Africa's population is engaged in farming, but there are just 70 agricultural researchers for every million people, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Harun Munuve, who grows a variety of crops at his farm in Ruiru, a few kilometres north of Nairobi, says: "Initially we used to rely on neighbours or agri-dealers to find out what kind of seeds to plant. Last season I planted a certain variety that, it turned out, didn't work in my region."

Mr Munuve, part of an increasingly networked generation, turned to web app MbeguChoice for help.

image copyrightHarun Manuve
image captionOn his farm, Harun Munuve can consult useful agricultural data on his tablet

The app requires the user to answer a few simple questions about their location and the desired type of crop, then says what seed varieties are available, who sells them, and what properties they have, such as maturation periods and drought tolerance.

"We now know all about new varieties and where they work," he says. "I no longer have to rely on others. I am aware of every new variety and how they work in my region."

"We're all about giving farmers choices, but they often don't know what the choices are," says Aline O'Connor, director at Agri Experience, the company behind MbeguChoice.

image copyrightAGRI EXPERIENCE
image captionFarmers try out the new MbeguChoice app at a trade fair

"Good seed in the wrong place is no longer good seed. Seed that works great in Nairobi won't perform at a lower altitude."

She admits that providing an internet-based service means many farmers, still reliant on basic mobile phones, will not be able to access it.

But "we're planning for the future," she says.

Wisdom of crowds

Other services are sticking to tried-and-tested SMS or text message, to deliver useful information, given the continuing prevalence of ordinary mobiles among rural farmers.

WeFarm allows farmers to ask questions about specific problems on their farms, and receive crowd-sourced answers directly from their peers.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionMore than 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in farming

More than 4,500 farmers have signed up since it launched in February.

"A large proportion of the world has no access to the internet or information services," says Teresa Nekesa, WeFarm's Africa programme manager. "This is particularly true for small-scale farmers who often live in isolated rural areas, far from internet kiosks or expert advice.

"We had to use technology which was already widely accessible and available to the groups we wanted to work with."

Shaking the money tree

Yet Peris Bosire, co-founder of Kenyan company FarmDrive, believes information is essentially useless if it does not come hand-in-hand with finance.

Currently, only 1% of commercial loans in East Africa go to agriculture.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFlower growing has overtaken coffee and tourism as a source of foreign exchange for Kenya

"There is a huge funding gap and we feel technology can play a role in filling that gap," Ms Bosire says.

FarmDrive provides a simple record-keeping platform that helps farmers build a credit profile and input their financial information via SMS, Android app or online.

The company works with credit agencies and commercial banks to ensure the information coming from the farmer is relevant.

Stephen Kiguru, another Kenyan farmer, owns cattle, grows vegetables, and keeps bees on his small farm in Lari, Kiambu County.

He says until he started using FarmDrive he had little knowledge of how his business was progressing.

"I didn't know how much profit I was making from the different farming activities I'm involved in, which farming activity has better profit margins, and what has demand in the market," he says.

image copyrightALINE O'CONNOR FUNK
image captionKenyan farmer Mususya Kaisali has improved yields by planting hybrid maize seed

Mr Kiguru is now able to keep records via SMS on his ordinary mobile phone and receive tailored reports of his farming activities.

And thanks to this growing credit profile, he may be eligible for a loan in future.

While technology offers huge potential for Africa's small-holder farmers, Emilio Hernandez, agricultural finance officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), believes that beyond Kenya, there is less innovation than there should be.

Cumbersome regulation of the IT and mobile industries often act as a brake on progress, he says.

"Everyone agrees there is an untapped potential, but so far it is limited to certain locations and the question is: how big can it be?"

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