Seeds, Soil and SMS: How Mobiles Promote Resilience Among Small-Scale Farmers in Africa

Digital-Diversity-BannerDespite producing more than 70% of the world’s food, most small-scale farmers live on less than $1 a day. Typically, they lack access to finance, traditional markets and much-needed agricultural products. Not only that, many also live in remote areas without Internet access meaning they have no way to access vital agricultural advice or information, either. In this issue of Digital Diversity, we look at WeFarm, a mobile service that enables smallholder farmers to share agricultural information without the need for the Internet, and without even having to leave their farm.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Kenny Ewan

A farmer in rural Kenya has a question about his chickens who have fallen sick. With soil still under his fingernails he picks up his mobile phone and sends a text message (SMS) to WeFarm asking what he should do. Within minutes, he receives an SMS back with advice from another farmer recommending which medicine he should use.

This is precisely what happened to Kepha from Baringo, Kenya. After receiving advice from fellow farmers, Kepha managed to save 27 of the 52 chickens he owned.

Kepha’s chickens are very important to him. Not only do they provide eggs for his family to eat, but they’re also his main source of income. Kepha can sell chickens to other farmers or at markets when he has the opportunity to visit one. He also farms vegetables and staples that he and his family can eat, but his chickens allow him to earn a modest living.

Kepha’s story will resonate with many small-scale farmers across Africa, Latin America and Asia. There are 500 million small-scale farmers in the world who live off the land using a combination of subsistence farming and cash crops. Like Kepha, it’s likely they’ll have access to the Internet meaning they have little or no way to access vital information. Until now.

Farmers working in a tea field in Nandi County, Kenya (Photo courtesy Kenny Ewan)

Equal access to information is a global challenge that, if solved, would greatly improve millions of lives. While the Internet has generated a huge mass of crowdsourced knowledge for the Western world – think Wikipedia, eBay and Quora – there is often a perception in the West that the world’s poor still need to be told what to do. Why should the rules for them be different?

WeFarm provides a peer-to-peer service that enables farmers to share their knowledge and expertise via SMS. Already we have 25,000 farmers using our service in Kenya and Peru and more than 100,000 farming ideas and tips have been shared on WeFarm in just ten months. This crowdsourcing model, when done properly, is highly scalable and much more sustainable than traditional top-down services – just like the Internet services we all use.

WeFarm is a free service accessible from even the most basic feature phone. Farmers sign up by sending a text message to the WeFarm number and after they have registered they can immediately start to ask questions about farming.

Small-scale farmers share many common challenges with one another. Weather, climate change and volatile markets mean that their livelihoods are very vulnerable. At the same time, every day farmers are coming up with inventive solutions to tackle the challenges they face. With WeFarm, farmers can now access information such as how to diversify a farm, start a microbusiness, or tackle crop disease, which could mean the difference between poverty and security.

A female farmer in Kenya being trained on the use the WeFarm service (photo courtesy Kenny Ewan)

Rose, from Maua in Kenya, recently bought two cows with a microfinance loan but she wasn’t sure how best to feed them. With the advice she received from other farmers on WeFarm she is now getting 20 litres of milk from each cow every day.

Other farmers use WeFarm to research a range of topics. Kennedy learnt about cabbage spacing, asked about chicken diseases and discovered information on diversification through WeFarm. “Every time I have a problem I ask WeFarm”, says Kennedy.

Other farmers have successfully established micro-businesses, prevented soil erosion and discovered where to buy solar panels as a result of the advice they received from other farmers.

A coffee farmer in Kenya learning how to use the system (photo courtesy Kenny Ewan)

Kepha, who saved his chickens, said “It’s a really great service, you ask a question and in less than ten minutes you have an answer. It has also motivated me in farming knowing that other farmers are out there doing similar things.”

The idea for WeFarm came to me after spending seven years living in Peru working closely with indigenous farming communities. During this time, I was privileged enough to witness the deep expertise and entrepreneurial spirit that farmers there have. I noticed that farmers not only have inherited generations of agricultural knowledge but they also demonstrate real ingenuity in creating unique, low-cost solutions when faced with new problems.

Whilst in Peru I saw one farmer make a beehive out of an old clay pot so that he could sell honey and beeswax as well as cocoa. For these farmers, innovation is a necessity in order to save money, generate income and diversify farming. By creating a platform to share and access other farmers’ knowledge and innovation, WeFarm can unleash the potential of a global agricultural community.

Our goal is to give farmers a voice. Many farmers in rural areas have never been asked for their opinion before, so demonstrating to them that their knowledge is valuable is incredibly empowering.

As Amadeo in Peru said, “It increases your self esteem because your knowledge is helping another person.”

WeFarm aims to have a million farmers using the service by the end of 2016. You can follow their progress on Twitter at @we_farm

kenny-ewanKenny Ewan is the CEO and co-founder of WeFarm. Kenny spent seven years living in Peru working with indigenous farming communities on sustainable agriculture projects before joining CPF, an independent UK charity with a network of more than 270,000 smallholder farmers. As part of their start-up team, he played a lead role in developing and testing WeFarm.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, author, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja



Meet the Author
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.