Left to sell their produce for whatever a middleman offered, farmers in Kenya had no idea if they were getting a fair price. The mobile service M-Farm changed that and improved growers' negotiating positions.
High up on the fertile slopes of Kenya's Rift Valley, a farmer harvests his crop of snow peas and sells it to a middleman collecting produce from all the small-scale farmers in his area.
The farmer has no idea if he has been offered a fair price or what the actual going rate for snow peas is that day in the capital, Nairobi, where his sweet peas will be sold. He is at the mercy of a potentially unscrupulous buyer, who is keenly aware that farmers have traditionally had little access to accurate market information.
Yet now there is an alternative. A new mobile app called M-Farm, developed by three Kenyan women, means that now a farmer can negotiate the price with his buyer. All a farmer has to do send a text message to M-Farm's dedicated number and the live price for snow peas pings back in seconds lending the farmer some bargaining power.
"Farmers had been complaining that middlemen were exploiting them," said 28-year old Jamila Abass, one of three women IT graduates behind M-Farm. "We saw an opportunity for a mobile app that gave farmers these market prices."
Half of population uses mobiles
With more than half of the country's 39 million people using mobiles phones, Kenya's information and communications technology (ICT) entrepreneurs have seized on mobile technology to launch world-leading innovations like M-Farm.
Self-confessed tech geeks, Abass and her colleagues have found themselves at the forefront of innovation in East Africa.
"The Nairobi tech-community was taking off, there were tech competitions and investors willing to put in the money," she said, adding that M-Farm was conceived in 2010 after winning a technology competition.
In its first year, more than 3,000 farmers began using the program. That figure has now risen to over 5,000, with the company's sights firmly set on bringing the tool to Kenya's entire farming population.
The next step, Abass said, is to get farmers talking to each other via text messages, to have them form groups so that they sell collectively. If they can sell larger volumes they can then attract better buyers and higher prices. They can also save on the cost of fertilizers and pesticides by buying together in bulk.
Back to the farm
For 10 years Sam Gathigi had no interest in farming his 27-acre (11 hectare) plot near Machakos in Kenya's Eastern province. He preferred to outsource the running of his farm and stick to his day-job as an engineer in Nairobi.
"It wasn't until I saw and understood the food security problem we went through in Kenya in 2010 that I decided I had to learn about farming myself," Gathigi said.
He hired a consultant to advise him on how to run the farm, which predominantly produces melons, but had difficulty finding a market for the fruit. As a last resort he hit the Internet and came across M-Farm. He tapped into another of M-Farm's niche products: connecting farmers directly with buyers and leaving out the costly middleman.
"I gave M-Farm the price I was willing to sell my melons at, and they then found me a market," he said.
"I've signed a year-long contract with a supermarket with the price guaranteed," Gathigi added. "The alternative would have been to put the melons in the back of a pick-up and park by a roadside hoping someone would stop to buy them."
With his market secured, Gathigi can now concentrate on quality and production. M-Farm has been invaluable, he said.
Urban farmers jump to M-Farm
Gathigi is part of a new wave of what Abass calls, "urban farmers" who are also using M-Farm and, with their own slightly different needs, are pushing the boundaries of the mobile app. Often well-educated and with professional day-jobs, these urban farmers own large farms in their rural villages, run by a farm manager.
"Their needs are different as they typically have access to internet throughout the day and already have a high degree of technological know-how," Abass said. "Often they've come to us through Twitter or Facebook, they have smart phones and they just need us to push the product to them."
This side of the business is pushing the M-Farm sales teams to hunt out larger-scale buyers, including supermarkets, which they can then connect with a farmer like Gathigi.
But the unwavering vision for M-Farm's developers is to reach the thousands of small scale farmers across Kenya who still need access to their simple price information platform. And Abass is convinced the time is ripe for that expansion to happen.
"Right now, big corporations like hand set manufacturers are looking into local content here," she said. "It's a bubble that has just come up. We were lucky enough to come in at the right time and it's only going to get bigger."
Author: Victoria Averill
Editor: Sean Sinico