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Soil, seeds, and cell phones: Farming in 21st-century Africa

Jul 10, 2015

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Lina Zeldovich grew up in a family of Russian scientists, listening to bedtime stories about black holes and volcanoes. Now, she’s an award-winning science journalist. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, and Modern Farmer, among others. The information below represents the author’s own reporting, and does not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

Ask her to name a must-have tool for every African farmer, and Su Kahumbu will say, “a cell phone.” Kahumbu, founder of Kenyan organic agricultural company Green Dreams Tech, is not alone in her appraisal of the importance of mobile technology to the continent’s farmers. Alexandre N’djore, a Tanzania native and former head of digital operations at Millicom International Cellular, says, “It’s the ideal communication tool.”

Mobile phones are the best means of communicating information—be it weather forecasts, fluctuating market prices, or helpful livestock care tips—ever available to farmers in the developing world.

In the western world, we may be used to getting information through our TVs, radios, and computers before our mobile phones. But in Africa, the adoption curve is reversed. About 39 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa uses mobile networks, according to estimates from GSMA, an organization that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. And in some countries, such as Tanzania, the World Bank estimates that only 14.8 percent of the population has access to electricity, so watching TV is nearly impossible.

Today, farmers need up-to-date information more than ever. Farming wisdom in Africa is traditionally passed around within families, but the changing climate and new types of crops and animals demand that farmers learn new skills and have access to more information. For example, dairy companies introduced European cows that can produce a lot of milk, but they’re susceptible to local diseases and need more food and different care than the native breeds.

That’s why companies like Kahumbu’s Green Dreams Tech want to provide a variety of mobile products that will help farmers do their jobs better. To help with livestock care, for instance, Kahumbu created iCow, a messaging service that, among other features, helps farmers track their cows’ fertility cycles and health. The service includes a gestation calendar that tells farmers the best days to inseminate the animals, and offers insights on feeding needs; it will suggest when to stop milking a pregnant cow in order to yield the strongest calf, for example.

Farmers find these tips helpful; 95 percent of respondents in a recent Green Dreams Tech survey said that the advice had improved their animals’ health.

Kahumbu has also rolled out Best Mbegu for You (literally, “best seeds for you”), as part of the growing iCow service. The product determines which seeds would do best in specific regions in terms of growth and disease-resistance, and helps farmers find where to buy them.

Coaching aside, African farmers typically have little or no access to the day-to-day information that’s vital to their business, such as weather reports and market prices for crops. To solve this problem, Millicom helped create Tigo Kilimo. The mobile service sends out weather forecasts, advice on best agronomic practices, and price updates for major crops. “For example,” N’djore explains, “they receive the price at which a crop is being sold at a particular place, and they decide if they want to travel to that market.”

Mobile services can also provide farmers with a safety net for rains, floods, droughts, pests, and diseases. According to Kahumbu, missing one crop can set a farmer back five years. UAP Insurance Company Limited provides farmers with coverage, Kilimo Salama (translates to “safe agriculture”), which works on mobile devices.

“Everything is on the phone,” says James Wambugu, managing director at UAP. “The info we give them is on the phone. If there’s a payout, we give it to them on the phone.” The financial transactions are carried with mobile wallet systems such as Mpesa—essentially a mobile banking account.

Of course, this type of mobile service isn’t unique to Africa; services are springing up to assist farmers and small businesses across many emerging regions, according to a recent report compiled by the Boston Consulting Group.  In India, for instance, a farming tips service called mKrishi has helped farmers increase their productivity by 15 percent.

In these emerging regions, voice and text are the preferred communication methods. Apps, which rely on smartphones and pricey data plans, are less widely used. But analysts expect the number of mobile users in Africa to keep growing, which will drive increases in the usage of smartphones and apps. Right now, about 13 percent of African farmers use their phones for agriculture, but by 2020, GSMA expects this number to hit 30 percent.

“The mobile phone is a ubiquitous tool present in all remote places, especially in villages, where it is sometimes the only piece of technology people own,” N’djore says. “If we want African farmers to have the same knowledge as farmers do in other parts of the world, [the] mobile phone is the best tool.”

Lina Zeldovich

Science Editor and Writer

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