By Giles Lewis
On Friday the 25th of July I was lucky enough to pay a visit to Su Kahumbu, creator of iCow and her team at their offices in Nairobi to learn more about their mobile application and its effect on small-scale farmers in Kenya. My visit to iCow was part of a series of trips to various mobile application developers and companies who were involved in delivering mobile agricultural extension services to pre-dominantly small-scale farmers in Kenya.
I have just finished my second year at University College London studying Geography and as part of my third year dissertation I chose to research the use of mobile phones for agricultural extension services and their affect on the livelihoods and development of Kenyan farmers. Coming from a farming background and a keen interest in technology I was intrigued to find out more about how farmers in developing countries such as Kenya are using technology to improve their productivity and quality of life. Before visiting Kenya I had read a lot in both the press and academic literature about Kenya as an exciting hub for technology and in particular mobile technology, some referring to Kenya as ‘Silicon Savannah’!
The key source of data for my research was the farmer and Su kindly agreed that I could work with some of her team for a day interviewing iCow customers over the phone to find out what impacts iCow was having on their lives. The first lady who we contacted had previously emailed iCow to thank them for helping her with her cows. Through using iCow and its milk production tips the lady had increased her milk yield from just over 10 litres per cow to around 18 litres, the equivalent of an additional cow’s share of milk (without the huge cost of buying and feeding an additional cow!). With the extra income from a higher milk production she was building a new house and paying for someone to help her with her cows. The whole day was filled with great stories from farmers such as those who had paid off substantial debts, paid for their children’s school fees and even started a savings account. One farmer said that through using iCow they now had sufficient food for their family which really highlighted to us all the impact that a simple service like iCow can have on people.
Su also showed me the iCow smart tips service where farmers can find a whole range of information about both arable and livestock farming. A farmer can self diagnose a problem with their crops or livestock by checking against pest and disease information and make the necessary interventions to avoid losses. Through a simple menu system they can also get the number of a vet should they require attention. It was like the Wikipedia of agriculture and the simplicity of its functionality appears to be very successful in the field. I was also told about a new project to bring a market system to iCow whereby individuals can buy and sell all kinds of agricultural goods using the proven simplicity of a menu system via SMS. It will be extremely interesting to see how this is used by farmers as it has huge potential to revolutionise the way Kenyan farmers market their produce and could add a completely new dimension to the way iCow benefits the farmer.
Since my visit to iCow I have been recommending it to everyone I meet as so many people in Kenya have connections with agriculture. The taxi driver on the way home was telling me about how some of his chickens were looking sick and I immediately told him to check out *285# to see if he could find out what was wrong!
My thanks go to Su, Beth and Wini for their hard work manning the phone and recording information!