Tech entrepreneur unlocks markets for poor farmers

Jamila Abass, founder of M-farm, an agriculture portal that helps farmers sell their produce. PHOTO | COURTESY
Jamila Abass, founder of M-farm, an agriculture portal that helps farmers sell their produce. PHOTO | COURTESY 

As an avid reader, Jamila Abass came across many stories of challenges facing Kenya’s agricultural sector, from food insecurity to farmers earning little from their produce.

What concerned her was how manufacturing companies and retailers struggled to get adequate supplies from farms and farmers lacked markets.

Ms Abass who studied computer software engineering decided to use her information technology skills to connect farmers to buyers directly, cutting out the middlemen who offer low prices.

With her two friends, the 30-year-old developed a business plan for an online agricultural portal that sought to close the information gap between the farmers and the market.

In 2010, they won a Sh1,000,000 (€10,000) capital investment prize at the IPO48 competition—a two-day boot camp aimed at giving technology enthusiasts a platform to launch their web or mobile start-ups.

Their start-up emerged top out of the 37 participants. With the money, the trio founded the M-farm Company in 2011, where Ms Abass is currently the chief executive officer (CEO).

The company runs an online platform dubbed M-farm that now boasts of over 10,000 registered farmers from 100 in 2011.

Through the portal, the company is able to organise farmers into groups allowing them to fetch competitive prices by selling in bulk.

“If each person works alone, it becomes hard to access markets or attract big buyers looking for volumes of farm produce,” she said.

Due to the connection they have with farmers through the M-farm platform, Ms Abass notes that they are able to monitor their crop cycle and predict how much each group will harvest, making it possible to easily link them to markets.

M-farm has turned into a success, signing contracts with exporting firms and local companies such as Fresh and Crips, and Naivas supermarkets.

“They give us orders. We buy from our farmers’ groups and deliver the farm produce to the companies. Then the companies pay us a commission fee,” she said. (WATCH VIDEO)

Since low yields and poor quality produce are major contributors to losses incurred by small-scale farmers, the M-farm platform educates farmers on new agricultural technologies and tips for growing various crops that meet market demands.

“Farmers can also get in touch through the platform or by mobile phone to seek solutions for unique farming challenges that may be bothering them,” she said.

M-farm also provides up-to-date market prices through an app or SMS, direct to farmers at a cost. The prices help farmers make decisions on which markets to target.

Another income stream for the company includes yearly subscription fees it charges farmers registered on the M-farm platform.

Ms Abass said that developing a web portal and pulling users to it is just a small part of any business dealing with online platforms. To be successful, she said that one needs to focus on ‘entertaining’ the users so that they don’t abandon the platform.

M-farm achieves this through continuous research and innovations geared towards meeting farmers’ needs.

“We go to the ground almost every week to identify gaps or challenges that farmers are facing,” said Ms Abass. The company is now in the final stages of developing a precision agriculture online tool, which will digitally ‘walk’ with farmers from the time they plant until when harvests are made.

“If they are planting tomatoes, for instance, they will just click on the platform. It will then provide practical information on what they need to do at each stage of the crop cycle such as when to prune, weed, apply fertilisers and manage pests,” the CEO of M-farm said.

These strategies have seen the company expand over the last five years whilst increasing its profit margin and attracting more clients.

M-Farm’s success also led to Ms Abass winning the 2015 prestigious Aspen Fellowship Award, which provides the entrepreneur with a platform for sharing her knowledge and experience, to help curb global food insecurity.

She attributes the company’s success to persistence, patience and passion for work.

“These are the 3 Ps that help start-ups succeed,” she said.

She advises entrepreneurs to avoid being crippled by the fear of failure.

“Just give the business your best and stay optimistic.”