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Kenya: New SMS service to revolutionise farming in Nyanza

Mrs Jael Okoko with Dr Peter Okoth, a soil expert from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, at her farm in Gem, Siaya County,   last week. Right, Fibre Link marketing manager Jane Gidali at Mrs Okoko’s  farm. Photo| Justus Wanga
Mrs Jael Okoko with Dr Peter Okoth, a soil expert from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, at her farm in Gem, Siaya County, last week. Right, Fibre Link marketing manager Jane Gidali at Mrs Okoko’s farm. Photo| Justus Wanga 

Moses Ouma, 38, of Ugunja in Siaya County says a new SMS and voice alert service is revolutionising farming.

He is among 2,000 farmers in the county who are turning to the service provided by Fibre Link Communications, an IT organisation.

Fibre Link says the system works on a ‘‘push and pull” formula where subscribers send questions and get answers. The firm also sends them important information on weather and other issues vital to the farming.

The project, which is cashing in on the high number of people who own mobile phones, enables farmers to receive information on optimising crop production without visiting field extension officers.

Fibre Link marketing manager Jane Gidali says the firm has an agreement with leading mobile service providers to advance the updates to farmers.

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“There is communication by ‘pull’ where the question comes from the farmer and we respond.

The other one is what we call ‘push’ where we send the message on a subject we feel is important to the farmers subject to the kind of notification we receive from experts like the meteorological department concerning the onset of rains,” Mrs Gidali says.

The information helps farmers to choose seed varieties and other inputs based on soil type as well as dates for preparing land and planting.

“This is a revolution. When I was first told about using my phone to shape up my shamba, it was so remote an idea that I thought it was a joke. Now I can say that it’s a reality as you can see that mine are very healthy crops,” Mr Ouma says.

Expecting a bumper harvest since he started using the service in February, Mr Ouma says his family of five “will have more than enough” for consumption.

“I will sell the surplus because the yield will be more than our annual consumption.”    
An alternative to the field extension officers, Fibre Link is working with a consortium of experts, mostly drawn from African Soil Information Service (AFSIS), Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), and International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who offer answers to questions raised by farmers.

A subscriber gets the answers within 24 hours of sending an SMS question. Each alert costs Sh10 while registration is Sh40. A farmer who wants to receive regular updates on how to improve operations pays Sh40 registration fee.

“Once a farmer registers with us, we send them targeted information through telecoms companies,” says Mrs Gidali.

Available in the databank for farmers is information on crops such as maize, beans, cassava and bananas.

Although farmers are looking forward to the first harvest since inception of the project in February, they expect a bumper harvest.

Mrs Jael Okoko, 60, of Ndere sub-location in Gem district is one such a farmer. She says that rather than make numerous visits to government extension officers’ offices, 15 kilometres away, she had found refuge in the interactive SMS platform.

“Moving from place to place is a real challenge to me considering my advancing age. But I am now able to get all the information I want right at home, thanks to the SMS system,’’ she says.

Mrs Okoko adds that with all the information at her disposal, she is looking forward to a bigger harvest from her one acre piece of land.

“I always get four bags of maize and one of beans but from the look of things, I can confidently say that it will be more,” she beams.

The system works on a twofold basis; one way is through receiving queries from farmers on particular issues of concern such as curbing pests or a weed insurgence, while the other way is strategic information generated by the provider that is then disseminated to recipients when  need arises.

Dr Peter Okot of CIAT says that the initiative will address food insecurity and help farmers to increase their incomes.

“This way, we are moving towards a food-secure country.

What farmers need is strategic information on how to improve the manner they conduct their business,” Dr Okoth says. He says that the government has a critical role to play in ensuring that farmers get inputs at subsidised prices to help save money through avoiding importing food.

“We may give information to farmers, but unless the information is backed by financial support it will only be a mirage. Most of the farmers enrolled under this scheme are at least able to buy the needed inputs, but what about the majority who cannot?” he poses.

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