When Kenyan farmers need to know whether to take their cows to the vet, they can now just ask their phones. Using a popular new service called DigiFarm, they can use their phones to get simple information that will let them determine if their cow is infected with mastitis (a common disease), and find out whether they can treat the problem themselves or whether they need professional help. Referring to their handsets, they no longer have to rely on their neighbor’s opinion, or what someone told them about mastitis months or years before.
“A lot of smallholder farmers are very poor and they wait until it’s too late because they don’t want to spend the money,” says Leesa Shrader, who leads work on DigiFarm for Mercy Corps, one of several groups developing the platform. “The cow dies and they’ve lost an $800 asset, which can be devastating to the families. With DigiFarm, they can pull the training when they want it.”
DigiFarm, the winner of the developing world technology category of Fast Company‘s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards, not only contains valuable information on livestock farming, horticulture, and growing crops. Farmers can also access micro-loans and discounted “inputs” like seeds and fertilizer. That way, they can boost the yields of their properties, which are typically only five acres or less. “When we spoke to farmers, we found they really want to learn how to become better farmers–how farming can be a business and not a horrible life of hard labor with no money,” says Shrader.
The mobile platform is text-based and aimed at unsophisticated feature phones. It was launched last March by Safaricom, the phone network that pioneered the M-Pesa mobile money service. Safaricom teamed up with Mercy Corps, a U.S. aid organization, to design the service after talking with farmers on the ground. Mastercard Foundation provided funding. Within 45 days, 90,000 farmers had registered. Now there are more than 800,000 farmers on the platform, Shrader says.
Because they operate very small farms and are often located in remote rural areas, African farmers have traditionally been underserved by financial services and, despite being farmers, even by agricultural product companies. Shrader says farmers complain about poor quality inputs, like fertilizers and seed bags contaminated with cement and sawdust. Working through a startup called iProcure, DigiFarm ensures the inputs meet quality-control standards. iProcure also delivers on a next-day basis, like an Amazon.com for the Kenyan countryside.
Farmers pay for the goods using M-Pesa, a mobile bank account and payments network. They can top up their own money with loans from DigiFarm, which are typically in the $10 to $15 range. At the moment, the loans are backed by Mercy Corps, Mastercard, and Financial Sector Deepening Kenya, a trust dedicated to improving financial inclusion. But if it can prove that the smallholders are viable loan customers, Safaricom hopes to entice in mainstream banks to offer mainstream financial products.
Meanwhile, Safaricom’s parent company, Vodafone, is looking to copy the Digifarm template in other markets where it operates, including Egypt, Tanzania, and India. Given that there are more than 500 million smallholder farms in the world, there’s plenty of market to go after.