Smallholder farmers in Kenya are traditionally conservative, and getting them to adopt new methods and technologies can often take time and effort. In this installment of Digital Diversity, we look at how mobile technology, and one application in particular, is successfully bucking the trend.
Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from kiwanja.net featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Lexi Brown, a member of our Media and Research Team.
By Lexi Brown
Historically, reaching out and communicating with Kenyan farmers has presented something of a challenge but, with an increase in the penetration of affordable mobile technologies, applications are being developed which utilise the simple and user-friendly platform to educate farmers on better use of their livestock and lands to increase yields. In 2013, the Communication Commission of Kenya reported over 30 million mobile phone subscribers today, up from 330,000 in 2001.
One particular mobile application that has been developed in Kenya is called iCow. iCow helps cow farmers maximise breeding potential by tracking the fertility cycle of their animals. Think of it as a virtual midwife for cows, giving farmers valuable tips on breeding, animal nutrition and milk production efficiency to help increase milk yields and ultimately their income.
Originally, farming tips will have been passed down from generation to generation, resulting in low levels of farmer education and the execution of inefficient farming methods. iCow has become the platform that enables modern techniques, technological solutions and increased know-how to be disseminated across the country to small-scale farmers who do not have access to large industrialised resources. What the smallholder farmers do have access to though, is land, farmyard manure and manpower. And now, through iCow they have access to better information, which can allow them to take their farming more seriously and increase their yields – which in turn maximises their returns.
The dairy industry in Kenya is a huge, made up of and supported by a large network of 1.6 million farmers. Most use rudimentary methods to manage their cows’ estrus cycle and milk production and are estimated to sell an average of 3 to 5 litres per day. However, it has been calculated that 15 litres per day needs to be produced to bring a family over the poverty line. With low production comes low income, preventing investment in good animal feeds and disease prevention. Lack of investment leads to low production and this generates a poverty trap. It’s not surprising that most smallholder farmers have viewed dairy as subsistence farming and not as a business.
In Africa, older-style feature phones vastly outnumber smartphones and the year-on-year increase in subscribers has helped smallholder farmers become businessmen – particularly through the use of applications developed specifically for them. iCow, developed specifically for a feature phone, can be accessed through calling a toll-based number. Once registered, each farmer can enter personalised information about their livestock. The service then sends tailored instructions about the breeding and production patterns of their livestock via text messages (SMS) and voice prompts within the 365-day cow cycle, which assists farmers in making informed decisions and to reduce risk.
Farmer Thuo started using iCow during the launch of the prototype in 2011. Since then he has been implementing his new knowledge and has seen substantial changes in his yields as well as the health of his animals. One cow now produces 31 litres of milk compared to only previously producing half that amount when at maximum production. Farmer Thuo has learnt a great deal since using iCow – such as fodder production, hygiene and animal diseases to help him manage his stock and manage challenges, such as food shortages faced in the past. He has also started keeping records of his farming activities and is selling his milk regularly to milk brokers in the area. Previously, Thuo lacked the knowledge or business skills to measure the cost per litre of milk produced by his animals. He is looking to expand into pig farming in the future, demonstrating the confidence that iCow has given him as a farmer and a businessman.
Farmer Langat has five cows and through using iCow has learnt about different nutrients that his cows need, and how to store feeds and prevent disease. He says that he implements all of the prompts he receives and has increased his yields from seven litres to ten litres. Langat would like more information on higher yielding cows, and how he can access milk markets in Kenya and connect directly with the feed manufacturers. iCow has transformed Langats small-scale cow farm and he is now eager to develop his knowledge and skills further.
But what is the future of mobile farming? Can an increased ‘know how’ in African agriculture simply be reduced into a series of short messages and pushed out through an SMS? While this is indeed a great and significant step forward, there are wider issues within the sector (which continues to be stereotyped as one synonymous with poverty and subsistence). Farming is seen as the only choice for those with nothing, and aspiring youth are rejecting farming for the bright lights of the city and the promise of a higher wage. Increasing funding in the industry and ensuring that the right conditions are in place for farmers to seize opportunities to make a good living are just some of the challenges that need to be addressed to unlock the rich potential of African farming, and to drive wider prosperity.
Lexi Brown is a media planner at Mindshare UK, specialising in new media and technology for communications. This, with her passion for geography after studying at the University of Bristol, has led her to write for “Digital Diversity” and showcase examples of how technology and new methods of communication are improving the developing world, and helping individuals escape the vicious cycle of poverty. You can follow Lexi on Twitter @lexie_brown
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja