Technology no silver bullet for Africa’s farming challenges, says entrepreneur

Calvince Okello, founder of M-Shamba

Calvince Okello, founder of M-Shamba

Africa is seeing a surge in mobile phone-based solutions promising to revolutionise the agricultural industry. Technology entrepreneurs have developed mobile platforms offering a variety of solutions, including online livestock and produce exchanges, weather forecasts, market prices data, and access to insurance, financing and extension services.

It seems like the perfect intersection: millions of people in Africa have mobile phones, the majority of the population is involved in agriculture, and there are multiple problems in the industry to solve. But many of these solutions have struggled to meet expectations and remain unknown to the majority of rural farmers.

“Some people think technology is a silver bullet for the challenges in agriculture. But technology is not a stand-alone solution,” says Calvince Okello, founder of M-Shamba, a platform that provides farmers in Kenya information on crop production and farm management.

“Its success depends on other things, including the attitude and discipline of the farmer. There are people who farm because they don’t want to let their land lie idle, or because all their neighbours are farming, or because farming is what their family has done for generations. The way they go about farming is different from that of serious, passionate farmers who know what they are doing. So the farmer’s attitude and motivation does matter.”

Bridging the information gap

The engineering graduate grew up in Nyanza, raised by his grandmother who was a farmer. She grew coffee, maize, beans, bananas and sweet potatoes.

“She used to select some maize from what she had harvested for replanting the next season. The output would diminish every year due to the poor quality seeds. There was no guarantee of a harvest the next year,” says Okello.

The irony, he says, is that research institutions in Kenya are constantly developing new and better seed varieties. Farmers are either unaware of this, or simply don’t know how to care for the crops and as a result get poor yields.

“Farmers learn from each other. If one person gets the information wrong in this peer learning process, that information reaches many other farmers.”

M-Shamba seeks to bridge the gap by disseminating information gathered from research institutions to farmers. The interactive platform guides farmers throughout the crop life cycle, offering information on activities they should be undertaking from planting to post-harvest handling.

When it signs-up farmers, M-Shamba collects information about their location, weather conditions and crops they grow. Farmers then receive information via SMS on growing techniques, markets, equipment, pesticides and transport models.

They pay a monthly subscription fee to receive the information and can also send in questions. The company has worked with farmers engaged in rice, capsicum, onions and watermelons. In Mwea, a rice growing region in Central Kenya, over 4,000 farmers use M-Shamba.

M-Shamba focuses on farmers’ groups, which Okello says offer higher success in implementation due to peer monitoring.

Understanding farmers’ needs

“We started with an app, but the uptake was very low because most farmers were using feature phones. We wanted to continue using mobile phones as our main tool so we shifted focus to SMS,” explains Okello.

Although the adoption of smartphones and internet access is growing in Kenya, offering farmers the option to search information they need online, Okello says there are still opportunities for subscription-based services such as M-Shamba.

“If you went to the internet now and searched ‘maize farming’ you will get thousands of pages on how to grow the crop. But how sure are you that the information is the best for you? Our information is customised to the farmer’s specific location and ecological zone. A farmer growing maize in Western Kenya has different needs from one growing the same crop in the Coast because they experience different rainfall patterns and temperatures, and varying infrastructure networks.”

He says it is essential for tech entrepreneurs building solutions for agriculture to really understand the farmer’s needs. Young techies, Okello adds, should also be true to themselves and evaluate whether they really want to be entrepreneurs.

“It needs courage, perseverance, resilience and sacrifice,” he says. “I have made sacrifices such as turning down jobs even when people offered me 10 times more what I was making running my own business. Entrepreneurship is not the solution for every unemployed youth.”