Agriculture in Africa is growing. For each farmer that needs solutions to issues that may arise from daily farming, WeFarm has an answer, which can be accessed from even the most basic of mobile phones. WeFarm is a mobile service that enables smallholder farmers to share agricultural information for areas still lacking adequate internet access.
Developed by Kenny Ewan and Claire Rhodes, WeFarm is a peer-to-peer offline messaging service for farmers around Africa. Ventures Africa had a conversation with Kenny Ewan, co-Founder and CEO of the WeFarm initiative. He spoke about the service as a permanent solution to issues plaguing rural farming in developing countries.
Ventures Africa (VA): The initiative seems to be an impressive one given the fact that any farmer can make use of the most basic mobile phone to access farming solutions. Is WeFarm only used by African farmers? What other developing countries make use of the initiative?
Kenny Ewan (KE): At the moment, our service is available in Kenya and Peru. In a couple of weeks, we are launching in Uganda and we have big expansion plans for 2016 as well – some of the countries we are planning to launch in include Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, India and Colombia. Our goal is to have a million farmers using WeFarm by the end of 2016, connecting them to advice that will enable them improve their livelihoods. We have found that some very interesting innovations are shared across continents – we think there is a huge potential for a farmer in Peru to give a farmer in Kenya useful advice on how to start a micro-business.
VA. What are the current statistics on the use of WeFarm on the African continent?
KE. WeFarm currently has over 32,000 farmers using the service, the majority of these are located in Kenya. (We currently have around 2,000 in Peru using the system.) 60 percent of our users are active monthly, which is very significant for us, as it demonstrates that people are getting real value from the service and returning to use WeFarm over and over again.
VA. Who is your target audience and how exactly does the initiative introduce the sms service to farmers who had no prior knowledge about WeFarm, especially those living in remote areas?
KE. As our target audience is by definition, unconnected from other more traditional forms of marketing, one of our greatest challenges has been finding innovative ways to reach these farmers who live in remote areas. At the moment, we work very closely with Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF) network of 280,000 smallholder farmers, running training days with them and finding ambassadors who can then train other farmers. We have also had a lot of success running radio shows on local and national radio stations. With one show we had more than 4,000 farmers sign up in less than an hour!
VA. Are there any collaborative efforts between the founders of WeFarm and governments in countries of interest to spread awareness about the service? What has the response from the local farmers been like?
KE. In the future we hope to work with governments more closely, especially as we begin to collect more data on smallholder farmers and the challenges that they face on the ground. When we have millions of farmers exchanging information through WeFarm we will be able to track crop diseases as they spread, map the effects of climate change, and analyze trends around crop diversification – data that we feel will be very useful for governments looking to eliminate poverty and invest in agriculture.
The response from local farmers has been very positive – 94 percent said they would recommend WeFarm to a friend, 70 percent said it had improved their livelihood and 60 percent said they felt more confident as a result of using WeFarm. We have also found that people are very empowered by using the technology.
WeFarm gives people who have never been asked for their opinion before a voice and that is incredibly powerful. Kepha from Baringo, Kenya said WeFarm is “a really great service, you ask a question and in less than 10 min you have an answer. It has also motivated me in farming knowing that other farmers are out there doing similar things.” Amadeo in Peru also said “It increases your self-esteem because your knowledge is helping another person.”
VA. Is the use of the service particular to a special selection of farmers – like crop farming, animal husbandry or is it generic and applicable to all kinds of farming?
KE. Farmers using the service can ask any question regarding any kind of farming, whether that is optimal times to plant, fertilize and harvest crops, the best types of seeds to purchase, or questions around animal husbandry. For some farmers WeFarm is useful to ask how to diversify into new crops or start a micro-business.
Many farmers also share encouragement around sustainable agriculture too – WeFarm actually began as a way for farmers to share sustainable farming practices and farm innovations with one another. It has been very interesting, recently, to see farmers asking questions around how to prepare for El Nino. We spotted that this was a trend and sent out a message to all our farmers asking for their tips on how best to prepare, then received more than 600 pieces of advice in under 24 hours. We think that in the future this will be a very effective method of generating crowd-sourced, localized recommendations – which will be much more valuable than the current model of giving top-down advice, in my opinion.
VA. What informed you and Claire Rhodes to begin this initiative and is it profit based, if yes, how is this profit made?
KE. I spent 7 years living in Peru working with local indigenous communities on farming innovations so I witnessed firsthand the wide range of low-cost, inventive solutions people came up with in response to the challenges they faced. Sadly, because farmers live in such remote areas this information doesn’t travel very far. I started to think about why there wasn’t an online resource of information about farming. Then, when I met Claire Rhodes at CPF, we were talking a lot about communication and that’s when the idea for WeFarm came into existence. We have three main sources of revenue generation: Lead generation and advertising for businesses looking to market services to smallholder farmers, a unique data model useful for corporate food and drink businesses (e.g. for monitoring and evaluation of supply chains); as well as governments and NGOs working with smallholder farmers and value added services for our hugely scaling audience, such as market price information and weather reports.