Kenya: Transparency Phone App Maps Way For Rural Farmers, Tech Women

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VENTURES AFRICA – M-Farm, an award-winning Kenyan agribusiness company created by three young women, has launched a new mobile application as part of its efforts to empower both rural farmers and women seeking careers in technology.

Having already achieved success with its SMS tool, which allows subscribing farmers to obtain price information, buy farm inputs and find buyers for their produce, M-Farm has now formed a partnership with Samsung to create a mobile application that allows farmers to receive accurate, real-time crop price information daily.

The new application allows constant access to five major Kenyan markets to Kenyan farmers, who have suffered from a lack of price information and often susceptible to middlemen taking hefty cuts. Additional monthly price analyses allow farmers to make more informed decisions on what seeds to plant and where is best to sell them. With Kenya’s mobile penetration now standing at 71.3 percent, and 99 percent of internet users accessing the web via their phones, the creators of M-Farm believe they can help farmers using the increasing prevalence of mobile phones.

Women make up only 15 percent of the Kenyan ICT workforce, a figure that has prompted a response from empowerment groups seeking to encourage women to seek careers in a technology sector that has grown by an average of 20 per cent a year over the last decade and accounts for 13 percent of Kenya’s GDP growth.

“As long as you are connected to the internet the new application can help farmers,” said Maureen Gitau, marketer at M-Farm, who said the free application was downloaded more than 100 times on its first day of availability. “They don’t have to ask every day, the prices for the last six days are there. With SMS we had to train them a lot, with this app it is much easier, you just load it and the information is there.”

The original M-Farm SMS tool was launched after winning the IPO48 competition, a 48-hour boot camp event where web and mobile startups competed for €10,000 ($12,242) of capital investment. The business was founded by three young Kenyan women – Susan Oguya, Jamila Abass and Linda Kwamboka – who met through the iHub in Nairobi. Their award-winning idea was developed at the m:lab incubator in the same building. It already has over 5,000 subscribers, having started in November 2010.

Oguya says that building such a business has had its challenges yet that her and her co-founders have worked hard to overcome them, with help from others, and create an ecosystem that has genuine benefits to previously disconnected rural farmers.

“Having a business that seeks to address a social problem required us to be on the ground and understand the needs of the clients and how the environment they are in affects them,” she said. “Illiteracy on tech and resistance to change from the farmers was another major challenge. How we coped with it was we partnered with organizations already training and working with farmers to explain and show them the value M-Farm has brought at the field level. The Ministry of Agriculture has also been a big help in giving us a countrywide view of how the market operates.”

M-Farm was in part facilitated by a group called Akirachix, a community of over 200 tech women which is seeking to help develop a successful force of women in technology in order to help build the industry. The number of women working in the field of technology is low – just 15 percent – with recent research from the Girl Scout Research Institute showing that women considering a career in the technological industry were aware of perceived embedded discrimination, with 57 percent saying they thought they would have to work harder than men to be taken seriously. Other women consider the career to be a male-orientated one.

“If we have this great resource why can’t we exploit it to get to the next level,” says Judith Owigar, President of female tech empowerment group Akirachix, which was recognised as Unsung Heroes by the US Embassy in 2011. “We would like to see more people contributing. The people who are most productive in Africa are missing from the field of technology.”

“We expose them to opportunities in tech and give them skills to exploit these opportunities,” says Owigar. “My experience in the field of technology is that it is mainly about interest, but sometimes people have the interest but do not know how to start. Not many girls consider tech as a career because it is seen as a male career. Many of the girls we speak to in schools do really well. Many of them don’t know the careers that are available. We aim to connect girls with women who can be role models.”

Abbass said the success of M-Farm should encourage other women to be innovative and get involved in the technological sector. “It is upon us, the young generation, now to go to the grassroots and encourage and mentor young girls,” she said. “Technology is an equal opportunity for us all. We need more girls to tap into their talents and invent solutions to the world’s challenges.”

This was a point reiterated by Oguya, who expressed a strong belief that technology could be used to benefit the lives of thousands of farmers across Kenya and beyond.

“Technology creates transparency in the market for the farmers,” she said. “They are now able to get real-time selling prices of their crops and therefore have better bargaining power with the middlemen.”

“Technology is inclusive, in that, regardless of where you are, you can get the same information urban people have access to, thus farmers who have for the longest time been relegated to the sidelines due to their location are now part of the information loop. This helps bridge the knowledge gap and equips them to be better farmers.”