Farmers Are Sharing Tricks of the Trade Across Continents Via SMS

From Kenya to Peru, some farmers have learned how to write a text message even if they can’t write with pen and paper.
A Kenyan farmer picking tea leaves. (Photo: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
Nov 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

WeFarm is Wikipedia for farmers, or as its founder describes it, “Internet for people without Internet.”

More than half the world still doesn’t have regular access to the Internet; WeFarm uses SMS to let farmers exchange information across continents.

“I wanted to make a platform where farmers could share information with other farmers and create solutions for themselves, rather than being prescribed what to do,” says Kenny Ewan, cofounder of WeFarm, which debuted this January in Kenya.

The model is simple: A farmer sends a question to WeFarm. That question is translated and shared with other farmers—in the same country or beyond. The goal is to have farmers come up with their own solutions, and WeFarm helps them achieve that by using a peer-to-peer platform. And it’s not limited to answering questions; the start-up encourages farmers to share advice and ideas. For instance, a farmer in Kenya might offer a tip: “Manure from cows, goats, and sheep adds nutrients to the soil.” That would be shared with other farmers in Kenya and beyond.

WeFarm works in Kenya, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. To account for the different languages and colloquialisms, the company relies on a global network of volunteer translators. While WeFarm might look into a more digital solution in the future, Ewan says, “Human translators work best.”

It operates in three languages—Spanish, Swahili, and French—but that’s changing soon. WeFarm plans on expanding next year to host a number of new countries: Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, and Colombia. The goal? To reach 500,000 farmers by the end of 2016.

(Photo: WeFarm/Twitter)

To date, WeFarm has answered more than 50,000 questions and has 25,000 farmers in its network. Launching in Kenya, though, was a wise decision, says Ewan.

“Mobile culture is so big there. Mobile technology is so ubiquitous that some people have learned how to write a text message even if they can’t write with pen and paper. It’s fascinating!” he says.

For others who are not as literate or tech savvy, WeFarm has debuted its product at local schools. Kids, no matter where in the world they live, are much quicker with technology and can teach their parents.

“There are lots of families who share a single mobile phone, so even if dad can’t write a text message, someone who is younger in the family might be much more skilled in using technology,” Ewan says.

Ewan became deeply interested in agriculture and sustainability during the seven years he spent working in Peru with farming communities. He felt that farmers had generations of experience that were being wasted. “The inspiration came from frustration, I suppose,” he says.

He saw farmers come up with low-cost solutions, sometimes jerry-rigged, other times just ingenious and resourceful answers to their problems. Yet, those ideas didn’t travel. Forget across continents, Ewan jokes—they didn’t even travel to another village or town in the region.

In 2010, he began to test the concept: Could an SMS-based Wikipedia really work? As part of a project for a U.K. charity, the Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation, which engages with smallholder tea, coffee, and cocoa farms, WeFarm was born. Once the concept was established in 2011, Ewan and his team tested it until 2014, using CPF’s access to 280,000 smallholder farmers globally. He conducted training days for CPF’s community, which gave him an ideal outlet to try the SMS network.

In the summer of 2014, WeFarm received prize money through the Google Impact Challenges—a sizable sum of almost $300,000. That transformed WeFarm from a project to a start-up. Though the idea started with coffee and tea farmers through CFP, WeFarm’s largest base today comes from poultry, cattle, and maize farmers.

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In the future, WeFarm wants to explore other ideas: sending weather updates, information on markets, and the latest crop prices. However, there are other enterprises that already have similar offerings. For instance, Reuters Market Light has been sending farmers in India updates on weather, market data, and farming practices for the last eight years.

WeFarm says that it distinguishes itself through its online platform, which can figure out which farmers are most likely to know the answer to a question. “That way farmers aren’t bombarded with SMS messages,” Ewan says. The algorithm has the capacity to send cattle-related questions to cattle farmers, given that maize farmers are not going to be interested.

WeFarm’s technology has many possibilities, Ewan says. It can use the data from farmers to map challenges in a supply chain for a supermarket or food and beverage company. As crop diseases spread, WeFarm can track them. This additional data is what will help the company find new revenue streams in the future—a necessity, because Ewan wants to raise $2.2 million in the next round of funding.

Yet, the impact on the ground is what has really captivated Ewan. In Tanzania, he says, WeFarm has helped give rise to a local radio show. Farmers text in questions and comments for a live broadcast. It is quite a popular broadcast, with farmers sending in a question or idea every 15 seconds, he says.

The bulk of WeFarm’s farmers use old-fashioned Java-based phones—the kind that are now being sold on eBay for parts. Just imagine if all these farmers had smartphones.