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WeFarm- a Farmer to Farmer Digital Network – is Helping Farmers in remote villages of Kenya

WeFarm helps connect farmers via Text Messages

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A farmer herds his cattle at sunset near Kisumu, Kenya, Feb. 2, 2008.
A farmer herds his cattle at sunset near Kisumu, Kenya, Feb. 2, 2008. VOA
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When she woke up one morning in February, Catherine Kagendo realized that one of her cows could not stand.

“It was lying on its side, had lost its appetite and was breathing heavily,” she told Reuters from her farm in Meru, in eastern Kenya.

With her husband, she decided to turn to WeFarm, a text-based network of small-scale farmers, for help.

Within an hour, their text — “one of my lactating cows cannot stand” — generated a flurry of suggestions, from “feed your cow with minerals rich in calcium” to “make sure the cow shed is clean and well-drained so the animals don’t slip.”

“I realized our cow had milk fever, so gave it calcium-rich feed and it was standing again within hours,” Kagendo explained.

She is one of many Kenyan small-scale farmers who lack good information — mostly due to a lack of internet access — on how to manage problems from dry spells to diseases, local farm experts say.

As a result, such farmers often lose their harvest or animals, they said.

But WeFarm, a farmers’ network launched in Kenya in 2014 and more recently expanded to Uganda and Peru, allows people to ask a question by text message and receive advice from their peers.

The service, whose Scottish co-founder Kenny Ewan describes it as “the internet for people with no internet,” is free to use and only requires a mobile phone.

Farmers text questions to a local number, and WeFarm transmits the message to users with similar interests in the area, tapping into their knowledge.

“We want farmers to get answers to their problems without needing to access the internet, so the information is available to all,” said Mwinyi Bwika, head of marketing at WeFarm.

Although the platform also exists online, over 95 percent of users choose to use it offline, he said.

Information gap

Kagendo said that when her animals were ill or her maize crops too dry, she used to have to hire an extension officer to help solve the problem.

“But we had to pay a fee ranging from 500 to 2,000 Kenyan shillings ($5-$20), and most of the time the officer didn’t even explain their diagnosis,” she said.

That cut into her family’s income and left them no better able to understand the diseases facing their cattle and their crops.

“We cannot even afford a smartphone to go online, so finding credible information was near impossible,” she said.

According to Bwika, small-scale farmers often lack the information they need because of a lack of cash — most live on less than a dollar a day — as well as poor internet connection and low literacy levels.

“Ewan realized that farmers living just a few miles from each other were facing the same challenges, but with no way to communicate about them. So, he created a platform to connect them,” Bwika said.

Joseph Kinyua, another farmer from Meru who grows vegetables, said he spends at least 30 minutes per day using WeFarm.

“It’s taught me anything from using pest control traps to ensuring that my sprinklers don’t put out too much water,” he said. “And I know the methods are proven and tested by other farmers.”

The knowledge has helped improve the quality of the kale he grows, he said, enough that “I can now sell a kilo at the market at 70 shillings [$0.70] compared to 50 [$0.50] previously.”

Preventing problems

While the platform might receive dozens of replies to a question, it only sends out to the user a selection of answers judged correct, Bwika said.

But it uses the questions and advice received to help track disease outbreaks or extreme weather spells, and shares those insights with governments and non-governmental organizations, Bwika said.

“In doing so, we hope to prevent disease outbreaks and track problems before they occur,” he said.

Not everyone shares this optimism, however.

Mary Nkatha, a farmer from Meru, said she found it hard to implement some of the recommendations she received from WeFarm without the practical guidance of an expert.

“If I am told to inject my cow with something, how do I make sure I do it in the right place? And where do I find the equipment?” she asked.

Fredrick Ochido, a Kenya-based consultant on dairy farming, also worries that the platform may be entrenching farmers’ poor use of technology, rather than helping them keep up with new trends.

The WeFarm platform has over 100,000 current users in Kenya, Uganda and Peru, and its operators hopes to reach one million farmers in the next year. They also aim to expand the effort to other countries, including Tanzania. (VOA)

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Small Farmers in Asia Miss Out On Climate Change Resilient Seeds

East-West Seed has built a successful business focusing purely on smallholders

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Women farmers use sticks to make holes in the soil for seeds, on a farm near Pangalengan, West Java, Indonesia. VOA

Millions of smallholder farmers in South and Southeast Asia are missing out on new, resilient seeds that could improve their yields in the face of climate change, according to an index published Monday.

The 24 top seed companies fail to reach four-fifths of the region’s 170 million smallholder farmers for reasons such as poor infrastructure, high prices and lack of training, the Access to Seeds Index found.

Access to seeds bred to better withstand changing weather conditions such as higher temperatures is vital as farmers battle loss of productivity due to climate change, said Ido Verhagen, head of the Access to Seeds Foundation, which published the index.

Egypt, pollution, seeds
A farmer burns rice straw at his field in Qalyub, causing a “black cloud” of smoke that spreads across the Nile valley, near the agricultural road which leads to the capital city of Cairo, Egypt. VOA

“We see increasing demands for new varieties, because [farmers] are affected by climate change,” Verhagen told Reuters.

“If we want to feed a growing population, if we want to tackle climate change, if we want to go towards a more sustainable food system, we have to start with seeds,” he said.

Smallholder farmers managing between one to 10 hectares of land provide up to 80 percent of the food supply in Asia, said the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

 pollution, seeds
FILE – Farmer sifts wheat crop at a farm on the outskirts of western Indian city of Ahmedabad. VOA

But traditional methods of preserving seeds from harvests are not always sufficient to cope with a changing climate.

About 340 million people were hungry in 2017 in South and Southeast Asia, a number that has barely changed since 2015, according to latest figures from the United Nations.

“The question is how to get markets to provide the varieties [of seeds] that farmers want, at prices that they’re able to pay,” said Shawn McGuire, agricultural officer at the FAO.

Some smaller companies are leading the way in helping smallholders access more resilient seeds, Verhagen said, such as Thailand-based East-West Seed which topped the index ahead of global giants Bayer and Syngenta, which ranked second and third.

 pollution, seeds
Indian Farmers causing smog in Pakistan. wikimedia commons

East-West Seed has built a successful business focusing purely on smallholders, he said, while Indian companies Acsen HyVeg and Namdhari, ranked sixth and seventh respectively, have also reached small-scale farmers with seeds.

Also Read: Climate Change’s Fight Harder Than Thought: Study

The index, funded by the Dutch government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ranks companies based on seven areas including strategies to help small farmers and supporting conservation. (VOA)