Su Kahumbu-Stephanou is one of Kenya’s most passionate organic farmers and technology entrepreneur. She developed a mobile application dubbed iCow, which emerged first in the 2010 Apps4Africa competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The application recently won the Vision 2030 ICT innovation award for Agriculture and was profiled by Forbes Magazine as one of the best African mobile Apps. Kahumbu-Stephanou runs Greendreams Ltd, a company that markets organic produce from small holder farmers across Kenya. She is also a TEDGlobal Fellow.
VW: From our understanding you have a background in music. Why did you opt to become a farmer and focus on organic farming specifically?
Su: I am a musician at heart. I started farming through trial and error- trying to set up a complicated hydroponic plant and erring due to lack of knowledge. I turned to organic production after a terrible incident where I inadvertently poisoned my mother whilst spraying a toxic pesticide on tomatoes. The impact was profound and marked a turning point in my life. I was horrified that the insecticides we were using were so toxic and from that day vowed to find a safe method of production.
VW: Tell us about iCow and the impact you expect it to have in five years?
Su: iCow is a mobile phone application that enables farmers access information, agricultural education and extension services through their mobile phones. The mobile application has several features such as the worlds first mobile cow calendar which helps farmers to track their cow estrus cycle. This ensures the cows are of optimal health and produce at maximum yield, a calf a year plus 308 days of milk. In addition iCow has features that link farmers to agri-experts including Vets and Ai, access to a virtual market place as well as an SMS feature providing an agri education service. To register, farmers send an SMS to the short code 5024 available on Safaricom, Airtel and Orange and follow instructions.
In 5 years I expect iCow to be the agricultural solution of choice for farmers across Africa. The impact will include increased productivity as well as an increase in the number of Youth taking up agriculture. Discussions are already underway for expansion across other African countries.
VW: What are some of the challenges you have faced both as a farmer and technology entrepreneur?
Su: Access to information was my greatest challenge as a farmer. This is why I am adamant in ensuring this is not a problem for farmers today. I still find it amusing that I am considered a technology entrepreneur. I continually push the tech parameters due to my ignorance of the field, but as long as this ends up with the solutions I want, then it is ok. I only wish it could happen at a faster pace.
VW: Tell us a bit about your personal background and growing up in Kenya. Were there specific experiences and opportunities that shaped you?
Su: I grew up in a large family, 9 kids where I was smack in the middle. My memories of my childhood are filled with laughter, loads of swimming training, motor sports and music. And really bad hair days! I guess I was a typical tomboy and only wore dresses (other than school uniform) to church. I attended an all girls convent and later the neighbouring boys school which took a limited number of girls. I recall enjoying school but found the week was too long, and I feel I was perpetually cooking up a plan to skip school on Wednesday. A couple of months before my A levels I gave up on school altogether and decided to join a band.
As with most families, when I was young, we would spend vacations at my grand parents farm in Nyeri and also our family farm in Njoro. We lived on a smaller farm in Karen. At a hint of rain, my mother would adorn gumboots and anorak and head out into the shamba (Swahili for ‘farm’) . I loved going with her and smelling the newly wet soil. I wonder if this subliminally prepared me for the future as I do not recall being interested in agriculture at that time. I simply loved playing in the mud. I was more interested in finding the critters and creatures that would appear with the rains, the tadpoles, tree frogs and snakes creepy crawlies under rocks. My siblings and I were bad; we would catch and cage everything we could. We’d spend hours in the neighbourhood which was wild and forested, sometimes taking snacks to cook on little fires we would make down by the river. I remember feasting on tiny fish and stolen strawberries and sometimes on wild pigeons. Kenya seemed so safe then. I am a social animal, moulded by my large loving family and many friends. I believe my upbringing and the prevailing conditions stretched my imagination enabling me to ‘create’ out –of- the- box.
VW: Despite Kenya being at the forefront of major technology innovations women are still outnumbered by men. Why? How can this be changed?
Su: This is not a phenomena limited to Kenya. The world over there is more men involved in the tech space than women. I don’t think it is because women are marginalized or that women should be prioritized in an attempt to have gender equity in the space. I honestly believe that women and men are wired differently and as such will automatically lean towards their wiring. I think that as women we are great at multitasking and perhaps less great at concentrating for long tedious hours on ‘one’ thing. Guys just seem to do this better. I don’t know if it would be sustainable to try to change this. Are there forces forcing boys into the tech space and forcing girls out? I don’t think so. I think we lean towards what we do best.
VW: Young people in Kenya view farming negatively? Why and how can this be changed?
Su: Young people perceive agriculture to be the last career on earth if everything else fails. This notion is brainwashed into society at a very early age. Added to this there has never been enough emphasis in our education system on farming as a business. To change this we need to build in a few long term strategies; more agri education at school, more access to agri information for our Youth in as simple and affordable ways as possible and access to affordable credit. We also need to develop new systems that ease the burden of agriculture and avail income generating opportunities for the youth.
VW: Do you think Africa can be able to feed itself given that millions of people are always facing hunger and starvation across the continent almost every year?
Su: Yes I honestly believe we can but it will require Governments, Donors and all stakeholders in the agri sector and beyond to focus on creating the most enabling environment for farmers. Collective and strategic thinking will be needed. Africa produces enough food to feed her (people), but has colossal losses in post harvest loss and storage loss. We also use our resources poorly considering we do not have food sovereignty. The production of cut roses and even coffee and tea in Kenya seem ludicrous when we have famine in the same country. It seems nonsense that we use foreign exchange from exports of this nature, to buy relief food.
My view is we need to do one very simple thing, and that is to prioritize.
Prioritize on becoming food secure. Once we reach a certain comfort zone it may make sense to use our vital resources like water on production of non food exports or products that are not vital to body nutrition like coffee and tea.
If we look at the volumes of cut flowers and other food exports off the African continent, we will realize that we already have the capacity to feed the continent. We are just not focused enough; the evidence is under our noses. It bothers me no end that we sacrifice the health of our nation for pretty flowers used to celebrate Valentines and Mothers days. It is morally incorrect that children are being born with rickets in our flower growing areas. This is largely due to the conditions their mothers are subject to. Our future farmers are crippled at birth due to the flower industry. It is sickening. As a continent, we need to reassess our priorities.
VW: What motivates you in your work, what is your philosophy?
Su: I am motivated by success. In my work, success translates to increased productivity and incomes for farmers. I aspire to inspire a young generation of farmers in Kenya and across Africa, armed with the tools and knowledge they need to earn decent and respectable incomes from agriculture. I am motivated by deadlines, and feel under immense pressure to contribute to turning agriculture around in Africa before it is too late.
VW: What are your recommendations for other women looking to venture into entrepreneurship and technology?
Su: Be passionate about whatever you get into. Don’t settle for less than your dream. Be prepared for good as well as bad times and for the trip through the valley of death when you begin to question your ideas and abilities. Learn early to fall forward and to fall fast. Be prepared to have a steely focus on your bigger picture, and work with like minded people to get there. Take failures as learning and keep going forward, persistence pays. And most of all remember that you don’t need to know everything, but will need the ability to connect the dots to make your dream come true.
VW: What your future plans?
Su: I am strangely unable to plan. I’ll see where iCow leads me.