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“Farming Out” Agricultural Advice Through Radio and SMS

In today’s installment of the special series Digital Diversity, Amy O’Donnell takes a look at how radio is being combined with mobile phone text messaging to better connect smallholder farmers with local agricultural programmes in Kenya. Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to...

In today’s installment of the special series Digital Diversity, Amy O’Donnell takes a look at how radio is being combined with mobile phone text messaging to better connect smallholder farmers with local agricultural programmes in Kenya.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.


By Amy O’Donnell, Project Manager, FrontlineSMS:Radio

The Organic Farmer, a Kenyan magazine about ecologically friendly farming practices, recently launched two radio shows aimed at smallholder farmers. John Cheburet is spearheading the use of FrontlineSMS on the radio shows, and, as Project Manager of FrontlineSMS:Radio, I was keen to speak with him. Radio represents the dominant media source for many people worldwide and it offers a vital tool for outreach, particularly to rural communities. FrontlineSMS:Radio works with community stations to discover how combining mobile phone technology with radio can engage listening audiences.


John Cheburet is the radio producer for The Organic Farmer (Photo: J Cheburet)


John Cheburet is a radio producer and a pioneer, offering a farmer information service for small-scale farmers and actively seeking new technologies to improve outreach. He is seen by the farming community as a friendly source of information which is vital for their livelihoods. While The Organic Farmer (TOF) was born as a print medium, John sees radio as a way to increase awareness and reach more farmers.

“An important thing about radio is that farmers can listen to other farmers. It’s one thing for me to tell them about growing mushrooms, but when a fellow farmer tells them how to grow mushrooms, the impact is much greater. It is effective when farmers relive their story; how they started out and what made them adopt certain farming practices.”

John’s listeners own an average of 2.5 acres. Many farm for subsistence and sell surplus to cover household needs and also pay school fees for their children. They may not have received training or know about the latest technologies, and they seek access to solutions and advice.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy in Kenya (Photo: J Cheburet)

“In Kenya, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy and the population depends on the land both directly and indirectly. The country is a major exporter of tea and coffee, and 70% of the workforce is in agriculture and areas that service this sector.”

John prerecords programmes for two radio stations a week, one for Milele FM and the other for shared-airtime on the government run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). He often records the shows while sitting in a car, “For the acoustics!” he says.

The shows are appropriately aired in the evenings when farmers are indoors and can listen in their homes. Content varies from soil fertility management and preparation of lands for planting, to the number of female goats with which one male can comfortably mate.

John remembers listening to agricultural radio programs when he was in primary school in the 1980s, “Back then, farmers could only take part by writing a letter, which could take two weeks to reach the station because of the slow postal system.”

John plans a radio show. He connects a mobile to his computer and uses FrontlineSMS to send and manage text messages (Photo: J Cheburet)

Now, approximately 20 million Kenyans have access to mobile phones, and John has started using text messaging to transform his radio show from a one-way broadcast medium to a two-way dialogue between members of the farming community. John receives about 20 texts per week. While he does text back individuals with a unique answer, radio offers a platform to elaborate and share information with the greater community.

Up to 90% of households in Africa own a radio, and it still represents the predominant media source for many. “In my village of 40 families we have no electricity,” John says, “Only 20% have television sets and those are powered by car batteries. One of the reasons why mobile phones are accessible is that they don’t need to be charged very often and can be taken to local trading centres to be charged for KShs 10 ($0.25).”

A popular topic on The Organic Farmer show has been about care of the popular ‘indigenous chickens,’ which are prized for their sweeter taste. In a recent radio show, John responded to farmer questions received via SMS on the topic.


Care of indigenous chickens has been a popular topic on The Organic Farmer show (Photo: J Cheburet)


One listener wrote, “I started keeping indigenous poultry and I have heard that there is equipment called an ‘incubator.’ Is there such an equipment that uses other energy apart from electricity? And is there similar equipment that can give the chick warmth after hatching or what other ways can be used to keep the chicks warm?” Others asked about livestock mating habits and the benefits of commercial feeds.

Another farmer identified a common problem with an SMS saying, “My chicks keep dying even after giving them medicine. I want more information from you so that I don’t continue losing my chicks.”

Despite being renowned as a hardy breed which can withstand harsh conditions, farmers have been reporting an unknown disease wiping out entire flocks of indigenous chickens. Working together, the community has discovered the cause is Newcastle Disease. Now, The Organic Farmer offers information about vaccination schedules.

Kenyan farmers texting (Photo: Nathan Eagle/MIT, 2006. Published on

The Organic Farmer also made a significant difference when a number of farmers complained about a supposed high quality dairy goat. They were paying a high price, but the livestock were not producing the expected volume of milk. From sharing experiences through The Organic Farmer, it was revealed that suppliers were falsifying records about goat characteristics, leaving farmers in the dark about livestock they were investing in. As a result, farmers and stakeholders are taking corrective measures.

John’s ambition is to work with community radio stations to expand the reach of farming programmes. He wants to build the capacity of community broadcasters to produce their own shows, with live-on-air discussions enriched by incoming messages from farmers.

The Organic Farmer shows the value of using SMS and radio together. While text messaging offers a method of interaction with listeners, John says, “We can’t rely on SMS alone, since we can’t send a whole paragraph, only the basic information.” Radio provides a platform to explore topics in depth, but John suggests, “Radio is not a stand-alone medium – radio must be supported by other tools. SMS allows us to do that.”

Amy O’Donnell is the Project Manager for FrontlineSMS:Radio. Her role is to maintain communication to ensure that the needs of users are translated into the software development process. She joined FrontlineSMS at the beginning of 2011 from the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, where she supported minority groups and indigenous communities to develop human rights campaigns. While studying Human Rights at University College London, she developed an interest in migration and the rights of the internally displaced. Previously, Amy has also worked at Action Against Hunger and Amnesty International.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Ken Banks
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.