Almost a year ago one of Kenya’s most well-known mobile phone based solutions for the agriculture sector was born. MFarm Limited, a Kenyan software solution and agribusiness company, was co-founded by an all girl team of Linda Kwamboka, Jamila Abass and Susan Eve Oguya. The company’s technology enables farmers to create linkages with the market. How we made it in Africa’s East Africa correspondent Regina Ekiru interviewed the M-Farm team.
Tell us more about the story behind M-Farm?
We were going through a newspaper article, which highlighted the challenges farmers go through to access the market. Most of them do not make decent earnings from their efforts because of middlemen who buy from them at lower prices and sell to the market making huge profits. We began thinking of ways to assist such farmers. Since mobile phones are accessible to most Kenyans we decided to come up with a mobile service platform that could link farmers to the market. Together we started the M-Farm software solution and we entered the IPO48 competition, a 48 hour boot-camp event aimed at giving web/mobile start-ups a platform to launch their companies. We beat 37 other entrants and won the competition walking away with the €10,000 prize as capital investment.
How does the M-Farm mobile solution help farmers?
M-Farm is an SMS and web-based application focused on improving weaknesses in the value chain. It disseminates targeted agricultural information via SMS to small-scale and marginal farmers in Kenya. Through the platform, which uses the short code 3535, farmers are able to get real time price information on different products at different markets and locations. This enables them to bargain with buyers and gives them negotiation power.
The platform also aggregates farmers’ needs and connects them with farm input suppliers. The platform solves the challenges farmers faced of accessing market information. M-Farm gives these farmers a voice by connecting them with each other in a virtual space. Currently we have 2,000 farmers across the country.
Can mobile phone based solutions solve Kenya’s food shortage?
Definitely. It is ironic that while in some parts of the country people are facing starvation other parts experience a glut. This is so common. Using mobile phone based agricultural solutions will create linkages and help tell where there is a food shortage and where there is a surplus. Social networking amongst farmers will also help them improve their farming practices and lobby policy change, all of which will lead to improved yields to feed the population.
Explain some of the challenges you face
Like any other new thing, acceptance of our platform has not been easy amongst farmers. Most of them only use their phones for voice services and do not look at other ways of making it a business tool. The SMS platform itself is challenging and therefore we have to train farmers on the formats. We have had to conduct outreach programmes, mostly in remote areas because that is where farmers are. Conducting publicity campaigns in such remote areas is no walk in the park.
What are your future plans?
By December 2011 we hope to have 6,000 farmers on the platform. We are moving towards expanding our footprint across the country. The western part of Kenya, which contributes a lot to the country’s bread basket is our next key target. We want to go beyond being an SMS service to becoming application based. This will enable commodity users to download the application and link with the market and farmers. We also want to create a social network for farmers. Currently information flow is one way. Our ultimate goal is for farmers to be able to use the platform to interact and share information amongst themselves.
As young women techies, how are you helping to bridge the gender digital divide?
Ten years ago technology was a male dominated field. There is growing interest in technology among women. The success of the likes of Ory Okolloh (co-founder Ushahidi), Isis Nyongo (InMobi’s Africa vice president and managing director) and Juliana Rotich (executive director Ushahidi) is inspiring more women to embrace technology and innovate. It is upon us, the young generation, now to go to the grassroots and encourage and mentor young girls. Technology is an equal opportunity for us all. We need more girls to tap into their talents and invent solutions to the world’s challenges.
Are competitions a good platform to turn ideas into businesses?
Yes. During the competition process you learn new things that are very helpful. You may receive mentorship and coaching. It gives you an opportunity to see your idea through other people’s eyes. And if you win and get a cash prize, then you get capital to start. The networking and publicity is also a plus.