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June 12, 2011

Farmers plant their hopes on cell phones

by Sam Wambugu

Current hunger and famine being experienced is not unique to Kenya. African agricultural output stands at a meagre 56 per cent of the world’s average.

Lack of access to vital agricultural information, as well as training and advice on topics such as pests and diseases, weather and proven farming practices has been cited as part of the causes of the current problems.

Access to mobile phones is growing dramatically even among those at the base of the economic pyramid, providing a new and powerful channel of communication and the ability to link previously excluded rural communities to up–to-date information.

But will the farmer use this technology? The answer is in the affirmative. Telephone is the only ICT used by the majority of farmers in Africa.

Empirical research in rural Ghana shows that the proportion of households using public community call offices — where available — is around 60 per cent, and average household telephone expenditure is over five per cent of monthly household income. The same research indicates that in terms of agricultural production, prices of inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides are the most frequently telecommunicated information.

The mobile phone promises to turn the tide against one of the largest challenges traditionally experienced by Africa’s smallholder farmers.

A marriage between agriculture and mobile phone technology is putting critical information at a farmer’s fingertips.

One of such most successful technologies is arguably the Esoko service that started in Ghana. Individuals, agri-business, government and projects use Esoko to collect and send out market data using simple text messaging.

The technology has now spread its wings to 15 countries including Kenya.

Locally, three Strathmore University female students — Jamilla Abass, Susaneve Oguya and Linda Kwamboka — developed the now popular M-Farm software to link markets and farmers.

The M-Farm, allows farmers to group together through their mobile phones to offer exporters and big retailers large quantities of crops. In addition, farmers save on the cost of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides by buying in bulk.

And yes, they keep them connected to family during long days in the field during planting and harvesting.

In what has been dubbed ‘pay as you plant’ service, mobile phones are also being used to distribute agricultural insurance products to farmers, most of whom cannot afford conventional insurance.

Kilimo Salama, a UAP insurance product enables smallholder farmers in Kenya to insure their agricultural inputs against adverse weather conditions, such as drought or too much rain.

Using mobile phone technology that links solar-powered weather stations to UAP insurance company, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and Safaricom, Kilimo Salama helps farmers to cover the cost of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides by paying an extra 5 per cent of their value.

If their harvest fails due to bad weather, they are reimbursed through M-pesa and can plant again.

In the latest of many recent tapping on technology to bail-out agriculture, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided a grant meant to encourage mobile communications service providers to use mobile communications to provide information and advisory services to smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Launched in South Africa this week, the mFarmer fund will be available over a period of two years with an aim of reaching two million farmers living under two dollars a day, by 2013.

The mFarmer Initiative Fund will support projects implemented in India and Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

The Nation

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