WeFarm connects farmers worldwide to increase yields and plans to begin
providing even more live data for a greater social impact.
By Janice Hoppe-Spiers
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs forecasts the world population will rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050. In addition, climate change continues to wreak havoc on small-scale farmers and increase pressures on the global food supply.
About 500 million small-scale farmers around the world provide more than 70 percent of the world’s food, but up to 90 percent of them are often isolated with no access to the Internet, basic agricultural information or new ideas. So if a plague hits a farmer’s crops in the developing world for the first time, where do they turn for advice to hopefully save this year’s harvest?
CEO Kenny Ewan developed information service company, WeFarm, to combat this information gap and launched it as a for-profit social enterprise in 2015. The UK-based company is a free peer-to-peer service that enables farmers to share information via SMS. Using their personal cell phones, farmers send a free text message to a centralized number and WeFarm’s algorithms send out each question to its network of farmers, collate responses and are sent back via free SMS.
“With WeFarm, farmers can share and access vital pieces of information on how to improve their farm or battle a disease without leaving their farm, spending any money or having any access to the Internet,” says Amy Barthorpe, head of business.
The company’s service was developed alongside farming communities in Peru, Kenya and Tanzania, and was something farmers in the developing world actually wanted to use, Barthorpe notes. “Already, more than 150,000 farmers have joined WeFarm in our first 18 months of existence,” she adds. “Less than 0.1 percent of mobile apps ever reach even half that number.”
International advice has become invaluable to WeFarm’s farmers, particularly because crop pests and diseases are becoming prevalent in areas where they have never been seen before because of climate change. “Who better to support the Ugandan coffee farmer facing a plague for the first time than the Peruvian coffee farmer who has been dealing with it for years?” Barthorpe asks. “We are the first business in the world to have launched an SMS platform that enables farmers to access tailored information sourced sustainably – and with the potential to scale – from within the farming community itself, so that they can increase resilience to climate change, increase crop yield and improve their livelihoods whether or not they are online.”
One of the many examples of success includes Michael Kirimi, a farmer in Meru County, Kenya. His tea was affected by alumilaria root rot disease, then by hypoxolon wood rot disease and finally by yellowing leaves. Kirimi found solutions to all his problems by posing questions on WeFarm.
“For alumilaria root, he was advised to prune two centimeters higher; for hypoxolon wood rot, the solution was to remove tree stumps in their entirety from his farm land; and for yellowing leaves he was advised to do a soil test and discovered a nitrogen deficiency,” Barthorpe says. “Before using WeFarm, Michael was harvesting roughly 2,000 kilograms or 4,409 pounds of tea per month. After WeFarm, he yielded 3,884 kilograms or 8,562 pounds of tea monthly.”
Feeding the World
Because small-scale farmers grow up to 70 percent of all the food consumed throughout the world, WeFarm helps provide data to multinational food and beverage companies that source from these farmers. “The multinationals that source from [small-scale farmers] often have no data at all from the bottom of the supply chain,” Barthorpe explains. “The millions of organic, user-driven pieces of content flowing through WeFarm enables us to deliver unique and highly actionable data from the world’s supply chain.”
WeFarm models can predict disease, ripening periods, shortages, drought, soil conditions, farm characteristics and many other vital supply chain issues. The data allows food and beverage companies to improve supply chain management and security, evaluate key trends and challenges, and increase sustainability and transparency.
“For instance, if there is a specific crop disease spreading through a region, WeFarm can track the disease and work with food and drink companies to help prevent it from ruining an entire harvest,” Barthorpe explains. “Many corporate food businesses have the knowledge on how to prevent certain crop diseases, but if they don’t have an awareness of the disease spreading through local farms, they can’t do anything to stop it.”
Moving forward, WeFarm plans to reach one million farmers and has plans to scale globally to markets outside Kenya, Uganda and Peru to achieve this. “Our retention rate and ‘stickiness’ metrics are quite high,” Barthorpe says. “We average a 90-day retention rate of 85 percent, higher than WhatsApp, and our monthly active users average more than 35 percent – double that of Twitter. In short, WeFarm’s popularity ensures that its growth is organic – farmers tell their friends. WeFarm also works with corporate partners, governments, farming cooperatives and NGOs to bring new farmers to the service.”
Once WeFarm reaches a million farmers, the company will scale to offer B2C services, including weather reports, market price reports and news updates. Continuous investment in learning technologies is key and WeFarm is creating a suite of sophisticated artificial intelligence technologies that are delivered to farmers through unsophisticated feature phones.
“We also continue to develop natural language processing for Swahili and a handful of other localized languages, plus voice recognition capabilities to help the 40 percent of farmers who currently struggle with their literacy skills,” Barthrope adds. “WeFarm’s unique crowdsourcing model and AI technology also creates opportunities for a whole second level of social impact through our data model.”
As WeFarm continues to scale over the next year, its algorithms will be able to start mapping and predicting issues like disease and drought across entire regions and countries where no live data currently exists. “Imagine being able to detect and communicate on an outbreak of foot and mouth disease within hours of it happening?” Barthorpe asks. “Through supplying these insights to governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), WeFarm will help create social impact on an unprecedented scale.”