On Wednesday 29th February the first Wireless Wednesday event of the year was held at m:lab East Africa. The theme of the event was “Using technology to enhance productivity in agricultural value chains”. Wireless Wednesday events are in essence focus group discussions sessions between mobile developers and practitioners or experts in various industry domains. Six farmers and rural community mobilisers were invited to participate and enrich the discussion with experiences shared from a grassroots perspective.
The discussion started at 12noon and ended at 2pm. Even before the event started, by 10.30am, the enthusiastic participants drawn from the grass roots across Kenya arrived early for a chance to interact with mobile entrepreneurs. m:lab East Africa incubatee - Mfarm Limited particularly received much interest, questions and feedback from the farmers.
Among the people who shared expert opinions on the role of technology in enhancing productivity of agricultural chains were Jamila Abass - CEO of Mfarm. According to Jamila, farmers needs included access to information that diversified their options for selling their produce and buying farming inputs. Farmers also need support to address produce storage challenges as they seek and wait for better market prices. In addition, Jamila thought that cash flow concerns and needs for instant cash by farmers against their produce was a challenge affecting their ability to optimize gains from farming. Jamila went further to explain how Mfarm helps to optimize productivity and livelihoods of farmers through market price information, collective produce selling and collective inputs buying.
Ghalib Hafiz from Juhudi Kilimo also had time to share thoughts about his organization’s contribution to agricultural value chains through micro-finance services. Juhudi Kilimo’s services which are exclusively in agriculture address financing needs of farmers in the deeper rural settings among small holder farmers. According to Ghalib, Juhudi Kilimo had seen a need to finance agricultural assets for farmers that generate income. This approach is different from that of providing working capital and consumption financing by banks and other micro-finance institutions. Using their micro-finance model, Juhudi Kilimo assists farmers to acquire and rear dairy cows with net returns of over 30% on their investments. Their model helps farmers to not only start dairy farming but to also grow their balance sheets with additional investments such as establishing bio gas plants, buying more cows and establishing zero grazing units - in very remote settings of Kenya.
Juhudi Kilimo’s focus on the deeper rural small holding farmers implies they have above average operational costs and that the organisation must operate efficiently. According to Ghalib, those efficiencies are currently achieved through mobile technologies. The organization has been creating an ecosystem of mobile applications to achieve their desired operational efficiencies. SimpleMFI, one of their mobile applications assists its loan officers to process loans using Huawei Ideos phones while in the deep rural settings of the farmers. Their Mswali SMS survey tool is used for feedback and conversations such as answering the question of where and for how much dairy farmers sell their milk. Juhudi Kilimo also uses Open Data Kit to collect basic data for their loan clients which is exported to their central management information system through the cloud and to their document management system. The micro-finance institution also has a SMS/USSD based tool for farmers to check their loan balance promptly and accurately.
John Wangombe, a farmer from Kinangop shared on how through M-Farm he got connected to better buyers for his snow peas and potatoes. John was glad that he was able to by-pass middle men through the M-Farm application to get higher returns from his farming endeavors. John went ahead to encourage young people to go into farming as it was potentially more rewarding than regular white collar jobs. John’s sentiments were easy to come by - having seen the benefits of using mobile services like Mfarm to maximize gains from his farming endeavors.
Patrick Njuguna, a farmer from Ngoliba in the central region of Kenya shared his experiences as farmer as well. Contrary to opinions of many, Patrick thoughts were that middle men were not necessarily bad and that they had an important role in the agricultural value chain. To Patrick, what is needed is to empower farmers with information through mobile innovations that they can use to negotiate and strike more favourable deals with middle men. Patrick called for mobile developers to work closely with mobile operators to increase the uptake of their innovations as the mobile operators needed their applications to drive mobile data revenues. As a farmer holding a BSC in Computer Science, Patrick thought that illiteracy among farmers was over over-emphasized. He disagreed with the ‘stereotype’ that farmers are largely illiterate. According to Patrick, SMS based solutions were not as attractive to farmers as those based on USSD and other mobile technologies.
George Makumi, a livestock health assistant from Makueni appealed for Mfarm and other mobile innovators to help farmers get better prices for their livestock. George also expressed a need for better penetration of mobile information services in the deeper rural areas where information needs are high and information barely trickles there. George opined that mobile information services can be used to significantly improve efficiency in the livestock market place. Market information and best practice information for livestock farming were areas that mobile developers could help to help provide solutions according to George.
The event had many insights shared by farmers, developers and mobiles-for-agriculture experts. The insights and discussion points were so many that they can not all fit in this one blog post. Another blog post will be written to cover additional thoughts and insights gathered throughout the event.
Mobile developers and entrepreneurs have in the recent past attempted to introduce new innovations intended to inject efficiencies in the agricultural value chain. It is in an effort to amplify these attempts and their potential impact that m:lab East Africa has got support from USAID to organize a series of “Wireless Wednesday” events throughout the year. The focus group discussions will be aimed at facilitating sharing of knowledge between developers and the subject matter experts in agriculture. Wireless Wednesday events are also opportunities for networking among mobile developers, entrepreneurs, domain practitioners and development partners.
It is intended that with many more such events facilitating cross domain interactions with mobile developers, more innovations will arise that are relevant to local socio-economic settings. This is expected to improve the the quality and sheer numbers of applications submitted for show casing in Pivot East - the region's premier mobile apps competitionorganizedannually by m:lab East Africa.