A text-messaging service has become the world’s largest farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing network, writes Stephen Cadogan.
At last week’s Oxford Farming Conference, Amy Barthrope explained how the WeFarm text messaging system had allowed farmers across Africa to connect, and seek advice on pests that might have arrived overnight, or ask others about routes to market for a product, or seek help for sick livestock.
A short text message opens the question to a huge network of farmers around the world with answers returning in minutes, without the farmer leaving their farm or needing super fast broadband.
There’s even an Irish connection, with Wefarm partnering with Heifer International, Bóthar’s International Partner NGO.
So an African family looking for advice on managing their Bóthar heifer from Ireland might tap into the knowledge of the 554,000 farmers registered with Wefarm.
The Wefarm team tells how a female farmer called Clara in Kaptumo village in Kenya was preparing to milk her two cows, when she saw that one of her cows was struggling to stand up. The next available person she could consult was the mobile artificial insemination officer, who was hardly ever available.
Instead, Clara remembered WeFarm, and sent an text message to WeFarm describing her problem. Within 10 minutes, one of the WeFarm members replied with a solution by text message, having had exactly the same problem.
Clara discovered that her cow had a mineral deficiency which was making her bones weak, and was advised that she should feed the cow with feeds rich with calcium and phosphorus.
Another farmer sent her a text message with advice on how to grow hydroponic fodder which could help to add minerals to her cow feed, at a cheaper cost.
Not only did Clara solve her problem, she also learned a new skill, hydroponic production.
WeFarm is tailormade for the 90% of small-scale farmers around the world without access to the internet, or to basic agricultural information.
However, about 90% can access a basic mobile phone, and by sending a free SMS, they can receive answers to their agricultural queries.
The service uses machine learning technology to connect incoming questions to those users on the system who have the most relevant knowledge.
Topics discussed on the network range from how to stop baby chicks from dying to where to find a market to sell onions.
The number of questions asked has exceeded 693,000; more than 1m answers have been given, and 59.7m messages shared.
WeFarm launched in 2015 and has enjoyed unprecedented growth, considering the “off-grid” nature of the end users.
WeFarm Founder & CEO, Kenny Ewan, said, “Connecting farmers to relevant advice from other farmers is a completely new approach.
“The majority of information delivered to people living in poverty is top-down, whereas we are using a crowdsourcing model to unlock generations worth of grassroots knowledge, ideas, and experience among farmers.
“In five years’ time, we want to connect 100m small-scale farmers to our network.
“There is still massive global inequality around access to information, but by designing services for basic mobile phones, you can create social impact on an unprecedented scale as well as develop a highly profitable social business.”
WeFarm generates revenue by supplying actionable insights to businesses, NGOs and governments, which could be extremely significant in the fight to eradicate poverty and hunger in the developing world.
Using this data, governments can track major issues such as disease and drought, and businesses can save millions of pounds by preventing crop diseases from ravaging their supply chains.
WeFarm was originally developed as a project by the Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF), a non-profit that works with smallholder farmers around the world, by Kenny Ewan and Claire Rhodes.
Since its founding in 2015, WeFarm has won Google’s prestigious Impact Challenge Award (2014), the MEFFYS Award for Innovation in Technology (2015), the Messaging and SMS World Awards’ Best SMS Solution (2015), Business Rocks’ Global Startup Pitch Battle (2016), Chivas Regal’s The Venture Competition’s UK prize, and 2nd place in their Global final (2016), and the European Union Commission’s Ideas from Europe Prize (2016).
WeFarm secured £1.3m in a 2016 seed funding round led by LocalGlobe, a UK-based venture capital firm.