iCow: The new mobile phone app that is changing dairy farming in Kenya

Dairy farming is a complicated and challenging business, particularly for small farmers. It requires knowledge and expertise in disciplines ranging from livestock management to animal health. In rural Kenya, access to information about methods and services can help to make farm businesses more productive. A new mobile phone application is making a difference.

icow sKenya’s dairy industry is dominated by smallholder famers, who account for seventy-five per cent of total output. They need access to education and information that enables them to manage and look after their cattle more efficiently. A new mobile phone application, which has been designed to run on low-end phones, is helping them to achieve better yields.

The application, ‘iCow’, is an SMS based information and education platform, which has been developed by Kenyan company Green Dreams Ltd. It aims to help smallholder farmers to increase their productivity by improving their access to important information. Easy to use and available in English and Kiswahili, iCow has three main features and more are being developed: ‘Mashauri’ provides education and advice, sending regular ‘tips’ to farmers on animal husbandry and management; ‘Kalenda’ is a calendar, which can be customised to individual cows, calves and heifers, helping with the management of oestrus cycles and gestation periods; and ‘Vetenari’ provides access to a database of registered vets and support services.

iCow effectively acts as a virtual veterinary nurse, midwife and farm business consultant, giving advice on gestation, milk production, animal health and nutrition. Once they have registered for the service, which is supported by a customer care centre established with the help of a grant from the Indigo Trust, farmers input key data about individual cows, such as insemination and expected calving dates, and then receive tailored information about caring for each animal.

iCow is already leading to healthier calves and lower cow mortality rates in Kenya. Its innovative quality was recognised when it was awarded first prize in a recent ‘Apps for Africa’ competition.

Micro-finance and remote farmers. When smartphones lose their value.

Two pioneering NGOs have come together to create a new initiative, which uses mobile technology and a trusted network of community intermediaries to provide farmers in remote areas with targeted savings and micro-credit products.

Micro-finance has helped millions of people in the developing world to establish viable small businesses. However, the structural cost of local branches and field operations has often made it difficult to go the ‘last mile’ and many deserving customers lose out.

The Grameen Foundation and Opportunity International have launched a pilot project in Uganda to make innovative financial solutions available to small farmers in some of the remotest parts of the country. The initiative brings Opportunity International’s expertise in micro-finance together with Grameen’s experience of using a combination of technology and community networks to deliver information and collect data.

Since its launch in 2010, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Grameen Foundation has expanded its ‘Community Knowledge Workers’ network to 1,200 people across Uganda. The Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs), who are all farmers themselves, use smartphone applications to provide advice and information on everything from market prices and the weather to crop diseases and animal husbandry.

Now the CKWs are the basis of a branchless micro-finance agency network, enabling Opportunity International’s loan officers to perform remote risk assessments of potential clients. They act as mobile money agents, facilitate the formation of ‘last mile’ producer groups and provide local advice that helps mitigate financial risk to the lender. This innovative new model of community-based finance provides a template which is likely to be used in other African countries.

The project will be presented at the ICT4Ag Conference, which will take place from November 4 – 8, 2013 in Kigali (Rwanda).

Mobiles and the Market. A new SMS service provides extra bargaining power to local farmers.

The “mFarmer SMS” service provides Ugandan farmers with weather reports and up-to-date market information. It facilitates communication between producers, buyers, processors and service providers.

The market town of Nakaseke lies 75 kilometres north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. It is old-fashioned and rural, part of the ancient kingdom of Buganda. Farming is the main economic activity in the surrounding district and crops include coffee, maize, fruit and vegetables. Nakaseke is also the site of one of Uganda’s six innovative Community Multimedia Centres (CMCs).

The CMCs are part of a global initiative by UNESCO to promote community empowerment and bridge the digital divide in the developing world by supporting community radio and providing access to the Internet. By opening the door to the global knowledge society, CMCs help poorer people in the developing world and countries in transition to use information and communication technologies to improve their lives. Typically, they combine community radio in local languages with the provision of basic ICT facilities.

The CMC in Nakaseke serves 45,000 people, most of whom are involved in farming. It uses community radio and SMS messaging to provide agricultural information to local farmers. The scheme, which makes use of skills acquired from Farm Radio International’s e-learning programmes, contributes to the improvement of traditional practices and the development of better methods of farming.

Nakaseke CMC recently launched the “mFarmer SMS Service”, a new initiative to provide farmers with weather reports and up-to-date market information about changes in prices for agricultural commodities. mFarmer facilitates communication between producers, buyers, processors and service providers, giving farmers extra bargaining power and helping to prevent them from being exploited by unscrupulous middlemen.

mFarmer uses FrontlineSMS, a free and open source application, to manage, send and receive mobile phone messages. The system can be easily customised to meet local needs, affording a quick and efficient means of communicating with rural communities about anything from price changes to emergency situations.
mFarmer’s success in Nakaseke is partly attributable to the high mobile phone penetration in the local area. It is also simple: just a mobile phone with a sim card, a computer and some air time. The system is browser based and designed to run on Windows, Mac and Linux. It does not even require Internet access. By the end of 2013, it should reach 600 farmers in the Nakaseke district.

The project will be presented at the ICT4Ag Conference, which will take place from November 4 – 8, 2013 in Kigali (Rwanda).

‘More crop per drop’. How ICTs are helping African farmers to beat the weather.

A new ICT-based scheme enables farmers to know the right time to plant and irrigate their land.

The weather is an important factor in the success of any farming enterprise. A good farmer should always plan for possible change; “cursing the weather”, as the saying goes, “is never good farming”. In much of Africa, however, getting accurate information about the weather, in order to make decisions about activities, such as sowing, irrigation and harvesting, has always been difficult. Climate change, which has brought rapidly changing and often more extreme weather, has exacerbated the problem.

Now though, African farmers can benefit from an imaginative scheme, involving the innovative use of technology to provide access to the best available forecasting and planning advice, helping them to beat the weather and use scarce water resources effectively.
The scheme – “Smart ICT for Weather and Water Information and Advice to Smallholders in Africa” – is being supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a specialist UN agency dedicated to eradicating rural poverty in developing countries. It aims to give smallholders in Africa the means to make informed decisions about the management of their land and improve productivity.

Small farmers, advisers, water user associations and irrigation boards in selected areas in four African countries (Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and Mali) have been provided with free online access to regularly updated, customised information, allowing them not only to plan, on the scale of individual fields, what to plant and how to irrigate but also to know when the conditions are right for maximum success.

Rather than giving farmers general statements about crop growth, the service uses tools, including satellites and remote sensors, to estimate changes in the vegetation index and evaporation rates, providing an effective irrigation planner. Up-to-date crop- and field-specific information for irrigated agriculture is made available in local languages, on dedicated web platforms and via SMS messages, to farmers in the pilot areas in Arata Chufa (Ethiopia), Nubaria (Egypt) and the Gash Delta (Sudan). Detailed flood information, hydrological modelling and water usage data are also available to users in Sudan, where spate agriculture is practised. 

The improved use of information contributes to “more crop per drop”, producing bigger crop yields, whilst reducing water consumption. Combined with better water management techniques, it should help farmers to become more resilient to external shocks, so they can produce more food for less water.

The project will be presented at the ICT4Ag Conference, which will take place from November 4 – 8, 2013 in Kigali (Rwanda).

ICT, social media and an image make-over for farming in Kenya

A new website’s championing of young Kenyan farmers is overturning prejudice

Farming is getting an image ‘make-over’ in Kenya to make it more attractive to young people. A new website and the imaginative use of social media are helping to change attitudes about farming as a career, encouraging young Kenyans to see it as a profitable profession.

Until recently, many young Kenyans saw farming as an unskilled, unrewarding profession, suitable only for the retired or the uneducated. Now, however, a group of determined young farmers are challenging traditional prejudices and trying to explain the attractions of farming as a profession. They are the ‘Mkulima Young Champions’ and have become figureheads for a digital initiative to change the way farmers are viewed by young people. Using a range of technologies, they are proving that farming in Kenya really is a profitable 21st century career path.

The group – Mkulima means “farmer” in Kiswahili – was founded by Joseph Macharia, a farmer and agricultural expert, and is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Its aim is to draw more young people into farming, help them learn from each other, trade, and overcome the challenges of agriculture together.

Daniel Kimani, one of the Mkulima Young Champions, is a typical example of the new breed of Kenyan entrepreneurs who are starting to see the opportunities farming offers. A trained engineer, he set up an aquaponics system to rear fish and grow strawberries. Now he earns KSh300,000 (2,600€) a month from it.

His system is resourceful and ingenious. Ammonia produced by the fish is filtered out of the ponds through stone-filled towers, providing free fertiliser and water for the strawberry plants that grow on them. Daniel is one of those proving to a generation of Kenyans that technologically-enabled farming is clever, lucrative and not necessarily labour intensive.

Since Mkulima Young started featuring champion farmers like Daniel and others, Joseph Macharia has noticed an appreciable change in young people’s attitudes.

“By having Mkulima Young Champions who are educated and young,” he says, “the attitude of the youth [towards agriculture] has changed, from viewing it as an activity for the old, to a profession that they can mint millions from.”

The initiative is about far more than publicity, though. Using radio, SMS and social media, it engages young Kenyans to discuss agricultural topics. Listeners to radio programmes can give feedback online, helping to shape the content and making it more relevant.

Meanwhile, , which opened in January 2013 and already has 19,000 followers, has become a vibrant place where young people post links, photos and videos, ask questions, discuss issues and interact with other young people who are passionate about agriculture.


The project will be presented at the ict4ag Conference, taking place from November 4 – 8, 2013 in Kigali (Rwanda). 

ICT joins the fight against fraud in agriculture

A simple SMS-based solution to the problem of counterfeit 'agro inputs'

Fake agricultural inputs are causing food insecurity and making farmers poorer, say experts. Counterfeit 'agro inputs' are a huge problem in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. They affect germination and crop health, often putting lives at risk. Now, however, the innovative use of ICT offers new hope in the fight against this illicit industry.

"Farmers are losing millions because of fake inputs which affect productivity," says Bruce Kisitu, the Ugandan co-ordinator of a project to combat counterfeiting. "This leads to poor quality produce, the inability for farmers to access competitive markets, and eventually food insecurity. Counterfeiting keeps smallholders in the vicious circle of poverty."

Farmer scratchingKisitu tells the story of a smallholder in Uganda who bought some groundnut seed to plant in her farm. As the head of the household, she relied on what she could grow to feed her family and pay for her children's education. When she dug the soil at harvest time, she found that hardly any groundnuts had grown. She had been sold counterfeit seed.
"The lady nearly died of stress and kept wondering how she and her family were going to survive," says Kisitu, who claims that the counterfeit industry now accounts for a staggering 30% of 'agro input' sales in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a trade which, in the words of Felix Jumbe, Executive Director of the Seed Trade Association of Malawi, "makes the poor poorer".

Kisitu believes that innovative solutions are urgently needed to combat this growing problem. He is pioneering a Ugandan project to eliminate counterfeit agro inputs "using SMS on the mobile phone", which has been developed by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) in partnership with CropLife Africa-Middle East and CropLife Uganda.

The project ensures that every pack of seeds a farmer buys is marked with a scratch-panel, which gives a pack number and information about the product. Farmers then send the pack number by SMS to a local short code, which a few seconds later returns a verification of authenticity.

"The beauty is the users or farmers authenticate the product themselves," says Kisitu. Self-verified products give farmers confidence and security – just two of the reasons, Kisitu believes, for the 10% increase in market share the specially-marked packs have gained over competing brands.

Requiring only basic mobile connectivity and technology that is already familiar in rural communities, the low-cost solution could be heading for success across the ACP region.
If that is so, agricultural fraud in Uganda could soon become a thing of the past.

The project will be presented at the ICT4Ag Conference, which will take place from November 4 – 8, 2013 in Kigali (Rwanda).