Kenya Farmers’ Helpline
Today, in Kenya, a group of farmers, are picking up their mobile phones for instant help. These farmers are dialing into a call center where agricultural experts respond immediately (in Swahili, English and other relevant local languages) to questions ranging from climate and weather information, to advice on land preparation, pest management, harvesting and marketing of produce, as well as the location of agro-dealers and sources of capital.
The answers are helping subsistence farmers raising such things as maize, cereal, livestock and poultry make more informed decisions to wring the greatest productivity—and profit—from their farms.
This innovative pilot project, called the Kenya Farmers’ Helpline, was launched by KenCall, Kenya’s largest call center, and funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant to the GSMA Foundation, Inc., dedicated to accelerating economic, social and environmental development through the use of mobile technology. When farmers call the helpline, they are connected to an agricultural expert (also trained as a professional operator) in the call center, who provides the caller with a detailed a response. All questions, answers, and farmer profiles are logged in a database that will become the repository for demand-driven content for Kenya’s smallholder farmers. In some ways, this delivery model is "the Google search function for the rural poor," providing access to the information superhighway even to those not yet on it.
Mobile phones provide an optimal tool to bring sophisticated advice to even the most remote smallholder farmers, many earning less than $2 a day. While only 10 % of the population of Africa had mobile phones in 1999, by 2008 that figure ballooned to 60% or 447 million people--and the numbers are growing. According to the Center for Global Development, an independent research agency based in Washington, D.C., over 50% of Kenyans have mobile phones today—projected to reach nearly 100% by 2012.
The valuable information these small farmers can get--the instant they need it—on the best farming and business practices can help improve farmers’ yields and increase their income from crops and livestock.
The current Helpline project—one of the first such ventures anywhere in the world—is still in pilot stage, yet already targets about 30,000 individual Kenyan farmers. The goal is to reach 600,000 farmers by 2011, and provide them with vital and timely information throughout the planting, harvesting and marketing seasons.
The potential impact of timely agricultural advice could be especially significant in African countries. Nearly half a billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Half of these smallholder farmers live in extreme poverty and a third of them are undernourished. They are growing crops in temperatures that already approach the maximum tolerance level, so that even minor droughts can lead to crisis. The effects of climate change, bringing wild swings in weather, higher temperatures, and longer droughts, will make the survival of subsistence farmers and their families even more perilous.
For a country whose economic prosperity is so dependent on agriculture, projects like the Farmers’ Helpline can be critical. In 2008, the agricultural sector in Kenya contributed roughly 25 percent of the total GDP of the country. If the Helpline’s real-time expert advice can move rural farmers from subsistence into small-scale agriculture production, the benefits of significant economic growth could be felt throughout Africa.