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Technology

Tech startup woos youths to farming with SMS service

Esoko Kenya managing director Paolo Mele in Nairobi on Wednesday. Photo/Diana Ngila
Esoko Kenya managing director Paolo Mele in Nairobi on Wednesday. Photo/Diana Ngila 

The fact that 2014 is the international year of family farming attests to the growing global interest in agriculture.

All over the world people are trying to find means of increasing productivity or alternative food sources to ensure that there is enough to eat for the human population expected to double by 2050.

Technology has also been incorporated to spruce up the sector and make it more attractive to youths — an uphill task considering the average age of an African farmer is way above 60.

A pan- African startup, is taking upon itself to bridge the information gap among farmers. Esoko was set up in Ghana in 2006 founded on the premise that increasing access to market information for farmers could increase their incomes. But it has since evolved to aggregate various mobile agricultural functions.

The company operates its services in several African countries like Malawi, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Mozambique, Cameroon and Madagascar.

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Esoko recently received grants from the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) in East Africa to roll out in Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia.

The launch of Esoko Kenya is expected to spur the adoption of information service in the East African region. In an interview with the Business Daily, Esoko Kenya managing director Paolo Mele said that the transition into Kenya was only natural because of the advanced mobile and agricultural market it possesses.

“Information is provided via basic SMS and the growth of mobile penetration means we have a greater captive market especially among the rural population which is more concerned with farming,” he said.

“The business and regulatory environment is also conducive to investment.”

The Esoko platform has different features that facilitate the flow and sharing of information among farmers in rural areas.

These include the SMS Push used to send specific extension message to specific group of farmers or those involved in production of a particular commodity or a targeted location with messages like the proper use of a chemical.

The platform also sends regular specific content like market and weather updates to farmers who are its members enabling them to make the right decisions at the appropriate time along with a feature on their website that allows farmers to interact directly and share knowledge.

There are two entry levels, one is through NGOs, agribusinesses as well as donor-funded projects which focus on agriculture and through direct registration of farmers.

“With the NGOs, we leverage our platform and services, especially the SMS Push, because they already have existing farmer networks or the people they want to target with their information so we act as the middleman to solve their communication problems,” explained Mr Mele.

“Since all projects are finite we hope that the farmers will be able to transition to our information services.”

Under the consumer model, farmers register on the platform via a short code and by answering a few questions a profile of their bio data and farming details is made so that targeted messages are localised.

On average the farmers receive five messages a week, two weather updates, two agriculture tips and one on market price information though this may vary because some crops and livestock need different types of information.

While the NGOs and agribusinesses provide a revenue stream by paying for the cost of sending the messages across their networks, registered farmers pay a monthly fee of Sh100 or an annual charge of Sh1,000 to access the weekly alerts though information given on the first month is free of charge.

The company has employed 20 enumerators to collect prices of about 30 commodities like maize, livestock, potatoes from markets across the country.

In Nairobi, focus is on Wakulima, Nyamakima and Kangemi markets and information on the market prices is also collected in Kisumu, Eldoret, Busia, Machakos, Thika, Mombasa, Kagio, Meru, Oyugis, Wote, Taveta, Chwele, Nakuru, Kisii, Karatina,Kitui, Garissa and Kitale.

The enumerators also provide profiles of the traders in terms of the volumes of produce they sell and whether required targets are made, this is then used to link them to nearby farmers to supply their shortfalls.

“We are currently in talks with several mobile operators to find out the most convenient way of automatically deducting the monthly fee whether it would be from the farmer’s airtime top up or from their mobile money accounts,” the managing director said.

In order to provide informative extension services Esoko Kenya has partnered with Toto agriculture to get weather feeds as well as the ministry of agriculture and NGO’s like CABI for the good agricultural practises tips which incorporates technical content for a particular commodity from planting to post harvest in order to reduce losses.

Fast response

According to Mr Mele, Esoko Kenya would play a major role in encouraging young farmers to embrace agriculture because it leverages on technology and simplifies access to information and extension services.

“Esoko provides a full suite of mobile agriculture services including market prices, weather updates, and tips on best agricultural practices,” he said.

“Many of our competitors provide only parts of our suite of solutions. While they only cover specific markets we cover the whole country.”
From the Esoko website an individual is able to access an aggregate of networks across the continent.

Once a farmer registers and chooses one’s country network, the farmer is able to see the prices of various commodities in different markets across that country.

By the end of the year there are plans to establish a helpline and call centre like that the one Esoko Ghana runs in order to enable farmers get fast response to their queries from specialists as well as have their profiles updated instantly if they diversify or move to a different kind of farming.

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