Rajiv Golla

These Kenyan Farmers Are Coding Apps to Cope With a Devastating Drought

I went to a hackathon in Eldoret, Kenya to see if homegrown technology could work where foreign solutions have failed.

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Jul 11 2017, 11:00am

Rajiv Golla

Kenya is facing one of its worst droughts in decades. Families are camped by dry wells, livestock has become too skinny to be eaten or sold, and armed conflict is flaring up between cattle grazers. Maize, a staple crop here, has been hit the hardest. In February, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a national disaster, with 2.6 million people in need of food aid after the drought started in 2014.

But on my drive to Eldoret, a town in western Kenya known for producing maize, milk, and Olympic runners, it's all a bit difficult to imagine. The city of 290,000 has largely escaped the drought. The rolling hills flanking the road are lush with greenery and corn stalks stretching in every direction from the town center. The most pressing issue here is the upcoming August election. The streets are lined with campaign posters and trucks blasting political slogans. With agriculture employing 75 percent of Kenya—one leading gubernatorial candidate, a former milk magnate, has taken a dairy cow as his symbol.

I went to Eldoret for Hack4Farming, a hack-a-thon that has drawn over 100 people—including the 40 competitors—from across Kenya. With the drought looming large, they have set their sights on revolutionizing Kenyan agriculture. In attendance are iPad-toting members of a growing class of young Kenyan professionals that have invested in small-scale horticultural outfits, keen on finding the latest tech for their farms.

Aspiring techies huddle around agri-businessman. Image: Rajiv Golla

Among them is Patricia Lagat, a former medical student that now grows passion fruit. "Don't call us farmers," she chastises me. "I'm a horticultural value chain player."

Lagat is quick to draw the distinction between traditional farming and agribusiness, which encompasses every step of growing and selling food, from production to marketing. Her app, Kuza, connects users to a range of industry players to provide the latest information on crop prices and cultivation practices. By plugging farmers into these networks, Lagat believes she can make the sector more attractive and more productive.

"More people will be encouraged to take up in the value chain because of the availability of information," she told me after taking first prize at the hacking conference. "The issue of food security will be combatted."

Among the other projects pitched to a panel of judges were a GPS platform to guide farmers to nearby fertilizer and feed suppliers, an "Uber" to rent out idle farm equipment to other farmers, and an app with individualized profiles for cattle to prevent inbreeding.

Agriculture accounts for 30 percent of Kenya's GDP, and innovations like these have the potential to make farming more profitable and efficient for families currently earning less than $10 a day. Arnold Bundotich, an astronomy student with a five-acre maize farm told me he has little trouble growing food but often has trouble selling his produce. "The major problem in Kenya is not about farming, it's about commercializing farming," he said.

Eldoret's county government has sought to address this issue as well, setting aside 30 million Kenyan shillings ($300,000) for business education and offering avocado, macadamia, and banana seeds to encourage farmers to diversify their crops from the vulnerable staple, maize.

Some innovations fall short at delivering on lofty promises

Foreign governments have also taken notice. Earlier this year, China inked a deal to purchase Kenyan mangoes, and India offered $500 million in credit to mechanize Kenyan farms and supply India's growing demand for grains.

However, as promising as some of the hacking conference apps may sound, African Institution of Technology founder Ndobuisi Ekekwe has pointed out that some innovations fall short at delivering on lofty promises. Many technologies offered by foreign firms fail to take root here, proving unfit for the simple, small farms that account for 70 percent of Kenyan production.

"Foreign-made farm technologies remain unappealing to farmers in Africa because they are cumbersome for those who control, on average, 1.6 hectares of farmland," Ekekwe said.

But the homegrown solutions offered in Eldoret might have a built-in advantage over foreign technology because they were crafted with local farms in mind. Lagat priced Kuza to compete directly with information gathering alternatives, like cell phone minutes and taxi rides to the town market. And second place winner Maye Edwin created FarmAssist to address the needs of a growing demographic of urban professional farm owners, like Lagat. The open source application provides daily stats on dairy production, tracks cattle reproduction, and facilitates communication between a city-dwelling farmer juggling their job and their field staff, augmenting the SMS systems that are currently in use.

Read More: The Promise of Code in Kenya's Silicon Valley

The products proposed in Eldoret have strong competitors in Kenya's marketplace. Cowsoko, an online cattle marketplace, has amassed over 10,000 users since 2015 and plans to expand into neighboring countries. Sokopepe has done the same to cut out middlemen in produce, linking farmers directly with bulk purchasers, eliminating brokers and increasing the amount farmers receive directly for their crops. Kilimo Salama has made insurance accessible to small scale farmers with mobile phones, letting them insure their crop production against weather risks.

Even the Kenyan government has gone high-tech in its fight against climate change, developing an insurance payout program for livestock herders triggered by satellite images of drought afflicted grazing land.

Despite the technical innovations and fast pace of agribusiness, Bundotich rejects the title of "horticultural value chain player" that Lagat prefers. In the end, he says, there's still an undeniable charm to living off the land: "I like calling them farmers."

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