AgricultureMaking the news

Making Mobile Phones Work for Farmers in Africa

2 Mins read

The biggest thing inhibiting Africa’s subsistence farmers from stepping up to fully-fledged commercial farming is information – or rather, a lack thereof. But help is at hand, in East Africa, at least.

Su Kahumbu Stephanou, CEO and Founder of iCow, believes that “knowledge doesn’t have to be expensive,” and that “we underestimate the importance of our smallholder farmers.”

Farmers need information on verified agricultural knowledge practices in both livestock and crops. Furthermore, that access must be simple, cost-effective and in real-time.

That’s why iCow shares such agricultural information with smallholder farmers and is designed for low-end feature phones that may not have access to the internet. And, with 1.6 million farmers in Kenya, it is working – 110 million educational SMSes have already been sent.

The platform is effectively an integrated ecosystem of services and tools that uses communications technologies to improve smallholder farmers’ success by helping them to optimise production systems using regenerative practices.

How it began

The concept started in October 2010 after Stephanou entered the first Apps4Africa tech hackathon, which she won. She was designing the Mkulima Farmer Information Service and Hotline (Mkulima FISH), an agricultural extension service available to farmers via mobile phones.

Stephanou entered the hackathon with a component for Mkulima FISH, the cow gestation calendar, and named it iCow. This calendar allows farmers to monitor their cows adequately, reducing the risk of illness and death at birthing.

The gestation calendar sends unique livestock notifications to farmers who have registered their cows’ insemination date on the platform.

But it’s much more than that

It has additional innovations: Masomo, Kalenda, Farmer Library, Soko and Experts Location Search.

Masomo is a broadcasting service that sends SMSs to registered farmers. Kalenda has other calendar-aligned products, including deworming, vaccination, bio-diversity tracker, compost and maize schedules.

It also has a Farmer Library that gives farmers access to topical content. For example, they can SMS a keyword such as “bloat”’ to 20285 and receive ten tips on the causes and treatment for cattle bloat. The library has SMS categories across all livestock, crops, soils, insects, climate change, farmers’ health and trees.

The Experts Location Search service allows iCow farmers to find a range of experts in their area, including veterinary officers, artificial inseminators, forestry experts, soil advocates and national research centres.

Soko, its marketplace, provides a one-stop-countrywide shop for farmers to trade livestock, crops, animal feeds, breeds, trees and land.

How it grew and where it’s heading 

Its soft launch was on 3 June 2011 and was marketed through visits to farmer groups which slowly resulted in farmers joining the platform. The product was promoted directly to farmers, who were frequently surveyed to understand their needs better. This guided the tech build.

Over the next ten years, iCow aims to focus on farmer education, concentrate on soils and soil biology, and develop citizen scientists and consultants in rural communities that are experts in those topics and compost analyses.

The process has already started with the Soil Advocacy Programme, which runs for two to  three months and is delivered in a weekly hour-long session for eight sessions. After completing the course and passing the exam, people can earn an iCow Soil Advocate Certificate.

Stephanou’s lessons and tips

Her greatest lessons while starting and growing her company were understanding the importance of partnerships, collaborations and ecosystems, and how they underpin scalable social innovations. She learned that tech alone was not enough and that subject matter expertise is vital.

Stephanou has some tips for aspiring entrepreneurs:

  1. Perseverance and integrity are your strongest currency – never compromise on either.
  2. Invest in knowing your customers early and embed real-time feedback loops in your products or services.
  3. Build your ecosystems with partners and collaborators that share an ethos.

Source: Charissa Chassels |

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