Tech-Savvy ‘Telephone Farmers’ Are Managing Their Land From Miles Away

A growing number of Kenyans are remotely monitoring and operating farms in the countryside thanks to new mobile apps.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Aug 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

During his trip to Africa last month, President Obama emphasized that the productivity of smallholder farmers would have to drastically increase if the continent wanted to end hunger for millions. With just a “few smart interventions, a little bit of help,” the president said, “they can make huge improvements in their overall yields.”

One of those interventions could be the development of phone and Web apps for so-called “telephone farmers,” a growing group of tech-savvy farmers in Kenya who are remotely managing and operating farms in the countryside.

“These ‘telephone farmers’ can often only travel to visit their farms at weekends,” Kala Fleming, who is developing IBM’s EZ-Farm project, told the BBC. “They are looking for smart solutions to better manage the water resources needed to irrigate and grow their crops.”

The agriculture industry employs 75 percent of the country’s workforce and amounts to nearly 25 percent of the country’s $33 billion GDP. Most are small farming operations, usually less than five acres, producing cash crops such as tea, coffee, and corn. Many small, rural farmers work other jobs in cities.

The EZ-Farm project, which is currently in trials, allows farmers to remotely monitor water tank levels, soil moisture, irrigation equipment performance, and other vitals using a smartphone app. Sensors located around the farm relay the information via the app, and infrared cameras also identify if plants need to be watered.

However, technology such as IBM’s—while having far-reaching benefits for remote farming in Africa—can be expensive for small farmers. As a result, a slew of cheaper apps have been popping up. A Web app called MbeguChoice, for example, allows farmers to type in their location, name their crop, and receive information on where to get seeds and how a particular crop will grow in a certain region.

“We now know all about new varieties and where they work,” one small-scale farmer told the BBC. “I no longer have to rely on others. I am aware of every new variety and how they work in my region.”

But the best bet appears to be on smartphone apps that deliver information via SMS or text—especially considering that 80 percent of mobile phone owners surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa primarily use their cell phones to send and receive texts. Other services, such as WeFarm, let farmers receive crowdsourced answers to questions via text; 4,500 farmers have signed up for the service since February.

A large proportion of the world has no access to the Internet or information services,” said Teresa Nekesa, WeFarm’s Africa program manager. This is particularly true for small-scale farmers who often live in isolated rural areas, far from Internet kiosks or expert advice.”

Another Kenyan start-up, M-Farm, allows farmers to get up-to-date information on market prices, sell produce, and buy supplies collectively via text message. Then there’s iCow, a smartphone app that gives farmers information on feeding practices, the location of veterinarians, how to contain diseases, and how to keep milking records.

There’s even an app to help farmers keep their finances in order and protect their credit rating. FarmDrive is a bookkeeping app that works with credit agencies and banks on behalf of the farmer, monitoring the financial progress of the farm and helping farmers improve their chances of getting a loan.

I didn’t know how much profit I was making from the different farming activities I’m involved in, which farming activity has better profit margins, and what has demand in the market,” said a small farmer in Lari, Kiambu County, who recently began using the FarmDrive app.

Small farmers across Africa produce only one-seventh of the yield per hectare that is produced on the same amount of land in developed countries, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co. But Internet technology could increase agricultural production in Africa by about $3 billion per year, the firm says. With global food production needing to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to meet demand, according to U.N. research, Africa could not only help itself by embracing the challenge; it could help the world.

While this kind of technology is helping a number of small farmers in Kenya, it’s not yet a widespread practice across Africa, Emilio Hernandez, agricultural finance officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, told the BBC. Everyone agrees there is an untapped potential, but so far it is limited to certain locations, and the question is: How big can it be?”