When essential farming skills are just SMS away


Messaging has become one of the most popular methods of communication, whether it’s through text messages or messaging apps.

But imagine texting, getting information and feedback from your phone without subscribing to internet or using airtime.

With a platform known as Arifu, farmers and rural entrepreneurs from Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Uganda are learning about finances and agronomy by texting an interactive Chatbot.

A chatbot is a computer program that simulates human conversation through voice commands or text chats or both.

The chatbot responds to standard questions immediately, at any time of the day. If a learner needs to ask a question in the middle of the night, a chatbot can answer them within seconds.

Chatbots have been used by companies such as Starbucks where customers can order for a drink via messaging or voice, one can request a ride from Lyft via chat and you can get all kinds of makeup tutorials if you chat to Sephora on Kik messenger.

This has improved the efficiency of businesses across the world through streamlining communication with consumers.

In Africa, however, the technology is transforming education, farming, and rural entrepreneurship by making it easy for organisations to pass knowledge and skills to masses through basic phones.

One user, Janet Kanyua, is a 45-year-old mother and farmer who keeps dairy cows, rears chicken, and grows beans and maize in Imenti Central, Meru.

She started the small scale farming activities after finishing her secondary education.

As with most Kenya’s rural small-scale farmers, she often struggled to sustain growth due to obstacles such as limited access to finance to purchase quality farming inputs, limited access to knowledge on good agricultural practices, and appropriate technologies.

Then she discovered Arifu.

“I saw a TV advertisement about a way where I would learn about farming using my basic phone by texting a question and I would get a reply. I dialed the number. I have trained with them for about three years. I learn about cows and rearing Kienyeji chicken,” she said.

She started learning about animal husbandry and later advanced to crop farming and finances.

Now Janet has turned her dairy farming into a business.

She has also bought a chaff cutter machine to chop cow feed and now keeps a superior cow breed which has increased milk production substantively and sustainably, increasing her household income.

“Earlier I did not know about cross-breeding and that there is a specific fertiliser for maize and one for cereals. I was just buying DAP and mixing it with soil. I used to do mixed farming but on my phone, I have learned that it is not the best. I never used to make a lot of money,” she said.

According to Craig Heintzman, the co-founder and CEO of Arifu, many farm households and small scale rural entrepreneurs lack access to the credible information and tools they need to manage and improve their earnings.

But there’s a way to reach them: In Kenya specifically, 62 percent of the country’s population of 49 million have access to mobile phones. The downside is millions are without the internet nor smartphones and hence cannot access the Web or social media to learn new skills.

This is where Arifu comes in.

In 2015, Canadian National and Business Graduate Heintzman launched a platform where people access free educational content from helpful sources and credible organisations over any mobile phone.

Mr Heintzman and his team developed a simple SMS chatbot accessible by any phone on the market via SMS, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

“If you create a website you will still not reach them as they do not have a computer or a smartphone. Arifu is engaging, entertaining, and free so people can afford to use it,” he said.

The company is headquartered in Nairobi.

In an interview with Digital Business, Mr Heintzman said the platform is purposely built to teach people how to solve their problems and learn on topics such as financial literacy and farming techniques such as which cow breed suits their region and how to reach bigger markets.

Arifu has worked with banks, mobile operators, agribusinesses, Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), and NGOs such as Syngenta, Mobigrow Kenya Commercial bank (KCB), Equity Bank, Digi Farm by Safaricom, Vodacom, CGAP, TechnoServe, and the Kenyan government to spread skills training and product information to the underserved segment of the population.

He said the organisations pay for the platform subscriptions and educational content creation.

The content is then delivered to the Arifu chatbox so that it is free for those who are looking to learn skills and information.

Content can be in any language that can be delivered through a mobile phone. In Kenya, Kiswahili and English are the languages mostly used on the platform.

“These organisations have an interest in educating the population on how to grow their business but they are finding that to do that face-to-face is very expensive and hard to scale up. Some populations are also hard to reach,” he said.

Five years into the market, the venture is already having encouraging results

The platform has helped 1.4 million people mostly farmers and small businesses in the rural areas learn on digital financial services, commercialization, how to save, loan facilities, and agronomy.

According to a study conducted on 300 farmers with Mobigrow Kenya Commercial bank (KCB), Arifu reports that 81 percent of farmers reported improved crop production, and 73 percent of farmers reported an increase in income.

“Amongst that group, 85 percent said the reason was due to the increased volume of crops sold. For 80 percent of the farmers, their experience using Arifu was the first time they have been able to access this type of information (agronomy and financial literacy),” said Mr. Heintzman.

The company was recently recognized during the Disruptive Agricultural Technology (DAT) Challenge and Conference 2019 and has won many awards in the technology space.

What has surprised him? I ask.

“By figuring out the behavioral science and the psychology of learning for an interactive chat we were able to unlock a lot of learning potential through basic interaction on interactive SMS.”

“We learned that if we deliver stories about people and their challenges and how they learned skills and succeeded through interactive text messaging we were able to see some really strong outcomes and interactions,” he said.

In the next five years, Mr Heintzman hopes to get 10 million learners on the platform and be able to scale across Africa and also other markets in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.