I built a mobile app to help Africa’s farmers but our countries’ infrastructure must work too

A woman picks tea leaves at a plantation in Nandi Hills, in Kenya’s highlands
A woman picks tea leaves at a plantation in Nandi Hills, in Kenya’s highlands
Image: Reuters/Noor Khamis
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Sitting under the bright lights of a restaurant in Nairobi’s up-scale Lavington area, I recently considered my next steps as a social entrepreneur in Kenya. My expertise is in the use of ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) for agriculture; put simply, it is about using technology to improve how we grow, sell, distribute and consume food. Recently, I was a keynote speaker at the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) held in Lusaka, Zambia, where I spoke about the endless possibilities of ICT4D if well applied and combined with broader solutions to improve smallholder farmers’ access to markets, and how data is the new currency. But perhaps I was wrong.

I googled the term and the top results, among roughly 407,000, with titles like “Top ICT4D conferences” and “increasing impact through innovations” popped up on my screen. ICT4D is the centerpiece of hundreds of conferences and events. Development agents often talk about ICT4D as if it’s the Messiah that every African smallholder farmer has been waiting for.

I wish it were true. In 2010, I co-founded M-Farm – a website and app that matched buyers with smallholder farmers in Kenya to help them access bigger and better markets. My work with M-Farm has taught me about the potential and limitations of such technologies. These technologies work as a vehicle to make smallholder farmers’ lives better, but they only work when we have functional markets and minimal bottlenecks.

When we started M-farm, we were determined to address many gaps in that system: combining the produce of many small farmers, transportation, quality control, finance, and communications. We paid farmers in advance as we waited for payments from buyers. But all this became too resource intensive for a startup company whose core business is about information.

Then, last year, we decided that M-Farm could do more by doing less. We retooled to focus on one part of this bigger picture. M-Farm now is a virtual co-operative where farmers in the same areas can share their experiences, pose questions to industry experts, and connect with each other, combine produce and find buyers.

With the support of business intelligence tools like M-Farm, farmers can take calculated risks. All farmers—but especially young people who are new to the business—need to make informed decisions. They need to know who is growing and who is buying what, when and where. They need weather, soil and agricultural information on what crops do best in different ecological zones. All this, and more, helps farmers make better planting decisions and avoid doing business using risky guesswork. This is where M-Farm and other apps play a major role.

At the same time, an array of development organizations in the public and private sectors need to ensure that the other parts of the market are functioning well. We saw this clearly in Mau Narok, Kenya, where farmers grew potatoes to fulfill their contract, yet were unable to deliver on time using donkeys for transportation.

Once farmers have secure access to land, here are four core conditions they need to participate effectively in the economy and achieve food security:

  1. Secure the natural resource base. First, water for irrigation enables farmers to produce year round in order to help them plan ahead and sell at favorable times and prices. Farmers should be supported in procuring basic rainwater harvesting systems now, while Kenya and other African countries work toward more permanent solutions to their water problems. Second, proper soil testing would tell farmers what inputs they need to improve soil health and crop productivity. This is essential. Currently, farmers have to send soil samples to the big cities for analysis. While organizations like soilcares which brings soil testing technology to the farmers’ fields have done tremendous work, such efforts need to be expanded to reach all farmers.
  2. Alternative financing options are a must for smallholder farmers who are largely cash-strapped and unbanked. Without access to finance on favorable terms, high-quality supplies—like improved seeds—will remain out of reach. One option is to store data electronically that is required to secure financing. Some farmer records, such as bio data and farm profiles already exist in paper files. Adding information on transaction histories could enable farmers to access loans. For example, last year Farmer Thuku, an M-Farm farmer, was accorded a $3,800 loan using his transaction history with M-Farm.
  3. Institutions that ensure timely payment of farmers to allow farmers to progressively access bigger and better markets. In many cases today, a group of farmers selling to a supermarket will have to wait three months to receive their payment. Delayed payments interrupt the production schedule of the farmers, who cannot invest in the next season’s planting without payment. Financial institutions like Umati Capital have come up with solutions to bridge this gap through advancing payment to farmers. But such solutions are often expensive and unavailable for farmers of fresh produce. Therefore, the cycle of selling to the middleman for reduced price to get instant cash continues. 
  4. Prioritize crucial infrastructure. It’s hard to be a farmer in Africa, and it’s even harder when you live up in the mountains and your only mode of transportation is a donkey cart, or when you have no cold room to store your produce, forcing you to sell immediately at a lower price. The development of transport, cold storage, and other crucial infrastructure should be a key priority for governments.

Agricultural development is rightly recognized as a key pathway out of poverty for countries in which millions of people live off their labor on the land. But for agriculture to succeed in sowing prosperity across Africa, we need to look at the industry holistically. Without solving the most important components of the supply chain, powerful technology and communications tools and solutions will flounder.

Jamila Abass is the CEO and founder of m-Farm and a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow and Quartz Africa Innovator.