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Photo courtesy of MFarmLtd on Facebook.com

Photo courtesy of MFarmLtd on Facebook.com

Three Women. Seven Thousand Farmers. One Tool.

Say you live in Africa. You’re a young educated woman with a degree in computer technology, in particular, software development.  You want to make things better where you live. You have an idea to improve agricultural profits. You realize that the average age of an African farmer is 60 years old. Young people in Africa are not interested in farming. There is no money in it. You want to change that paradigm. You find two other young women of the same mind. You design a mobile application that farmers can use to improve production and profits. You test it out. In two years, for those using the app, profits double. The app? M-Farm. The women? Jamila, Susan, and Linda.

Here’s a little more about their company from an article in the New Agriculturalist:

For years, Kenyan smallholder farmers have sold their farm produce at low farm-gate prices to middlemen, even when prevailing market prices are higher, due to lack of information. And low prices mean many farmers are unable to afford farm inputs, resulting in low yields. Even when large-scale buyers and favourable market prices are available, individual smallholders are often unable to take advantage of the opportunity because they lack large enough volumes to meet buyers' needs.

To counter these problems three young Kenyan women involved in software development created M-Farm in 2010. The initiative won €10,000 in investment through an international technology online challenge: the IPO48 developers' competition. Now with over 7,000 registered users, M-Farm offers three distinct services: real time produce price information on 42 crops in five markets; collective crop selling by helping smallscale farmers bulk their produce; and collective input buying, enabling smallholders to buy inputs at discounted prices.

Connecting farmers

To register, farmers send a text with their name and location to 3555. They are then free to begin using the services M-Farm offers. To receive maize prices in Nairobi, for example, a registered member texts 'Price Maize Nairobi'. A text response is sent back to the farmer containing the specific information requested. Prices from five markets (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Kitale) are collected and updated daily by independent market data collectors, who are tracked via geocoding technology to ensure they are in the correct markets.

At each of the five markets, M-Farm agents give financial advice to farmer groups. They also have an agronomist who advises the groups on growing high value crops. As crops grow, the agents and the agronomist make regular farm inspections to ensure they are being well managed to produce sufficient, high quality yields that meet the M-Farm buyers' standards.

Farmers with a smartphone can also download a free app which enables a user to look up the prices of all 42 crops in the five markets over the previous five days. The mobile app also provides monthly analysis of crop prices in different markets to show price trends, enabling farmers to make informed decisions on what to plant when, how to price their produce and where to sell.

M-Farm's website has an online trading platform which lists produce available to purchase from their members. Buyers are able to contact farmers directly, cutting out middlemen. "Our tool is about transparency," explains Susan Eve Oguya, one of M-Farm's co-founders.

Gerald Mokaya, a horticultural farmer in Kiserian, on the outskirts of Nairobi, is glad he adopted M-Farm. "I lacked information on market prices," he says, recalling how he used to earn 30 Shillings per kilogramme of tomatoes from middlemen. Today, Mokaya sells a kilogramme of tomatoes for at least 80 Shillings using M-Farm's online service. "It saves me time and the hassle of going out to look for buyers," Mokaya adds.

Making it work

According Oguya, being IT professionals and not farmers meant that she and her co-founders had to learn a lot about Kenyan agriculture in a short space of time. Gaining the trust of smallholders was also a challenge, she says, because not many were literate or knowledgeable about technology. To overcome this hurdle M-Farm has provided training to farmers, including how to send text messages and do basic mobile transactions.

For M-Farm founders, these experiences awakened them to the importance of providing education and literacy training in the agriculture sector. When they started they also struggled to access agricultural information, such as on market prices and planting seasons. Researching this information meant at times travelling to major Kenyan markets to learn. Oguya says it required persistence and not being faint hearted, especially given the unstructured nature of the Kenyan agricultural landscape.
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Here’s more about the story from an interview with Jamila Abass, Co-Founder of M-Farm and an Unreasonable Network Fellow 2012.

Not familiar with the Unreasonable Institute? They are doing all things unreasonable to make the world a more reasonable place.

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Cover photo by Kathleen Franks

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© 2014 - 2017 Kathleen Franks