Accidental farmer making waves in Kenya

Ten years ago, Su Kahumbu Stephanou, a musician, stumbled into farming. Today she is the founder and managing director of Green Dreams Ltd., a Kenyan company that produces organically grown products. Apart from championing organic farming, Green Dreams has also developed an award winning agricultural mobile application that helps small-scale rural farmers access and share knowledge. She sat down with How we made it in Africa’s Regina Ekiru to talk about her passion for farming. Below are excerpts.

Su Kahumbu Stephanou

Su Kahumbu Stephanou

Tell us the story behind Green Dreams
I founded Green Dreams after a trip to South Africa. While there I came across the hydroponics farming technology, which enables the growing of crops without soil. I decided to replicate this in Kenya. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a big failure. Four weeks after planting lettuce seeds things started going horribly wrong. The plants were stunted and in the end we had to abandon the venture. After this failed I decided to replant the seedlings using drip irrigation at my mother’s farm. It turned out to be a big success. We created a brand and began marketing. There was high demand for lettuce that even we could not meet. We therefore contracted outgrowers and introduced a salad pack that was stocked and sold at local supermarkets. Our distribution points expanded and in just a year we were buying vehicles and distributing around the city. The brand grew really fast.

Last year your iCow application won the Apps4Africa competition. Tell us more about this
Green Dreams developed an agri mobile application dubbed iCow 1.0. The application is a small-scale farmers’ mobile management tool. We originally designed it to track the gestation period of dairy cows. All along as I tried to push the frontiers of organic farming, I realised that the greatest challenge farmers’ face is lack of access to information. This inspired me to start developing information systems for farmers through mobile phones. The iCow application has so far registered farmers and cows across 27 counties in Kenya. To register, farmers send an SMS to the short code 5024 available on Safaricom, Airtel and Orange and follow instructions.

In Kenya, access to extension services is limited. Most farmers, however, have access to a mobile phone and therefore mobile systems are a logical platform for farmers to access information. The iCow application creates efficiencies across the agricultural value chain. For instance, the iCow platform features allow farmers to sell or find their nearest nursery selling fodder, fruit and timber trees. They can also find agricultural specialists and input providers, extension officers, organic advisors, biogas manufacturers and agro dealers. In a simple cost effective transaction sellers can post their wares onto the iCow platform assured that their mobile phone numbers will be sent to enquiring buyers. Cows, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs and even dogs are now available on iCow Soko for sale.

Good as they may be, it is crucial though that mobile applications are vetted in order to safeguard the privacy, safety and interests of the users, in this case the farmers, their livestock and the environment

What challenges have you faced in your agribusiness ventures?
The 2008 post-election violence hit us hard. At the time I was running a 10 acre farm in Tigoni, but we were forced to relocate because of the violence. Our outgrower farmers were also affected. By mid-2008 we almost went bankrupt.

More than 3 million people in Kenya are today facing starvation. What is the solution to Kenya’s perennial food shortages?
We need to encourage more youth to venture into agriculture. Unfortunately when farmers make very little for their hard work they loose morale. The average age of farmers in Kenya lies around the 50s. To the youth, agriculture is not food production, it is seeing their parents in rags. We have all it takes, a population of strong youth, microfinance, new technologies and mobile money. We have no excuse for food shortages. My future plans are to start a foundation to train the youth on various aspects of agriculture, from business, value addition, production, markets, etc. Agriculture is big business. We simply need to get the models correct based on our unique opportunities here in Kenya.