We set up farm.ink as a small team. After spending years advising commercial & development organisations on mobile technology solutions we saw big unrealised opportunities for mobile solutions to have an impact in agriculture. We also know that this is a crowded space: too much wheel re-invention is happening and important lessons from pilot projects is being lost.
To address this, for the past year we have lived and worked out of East Africa to really understand the opportunities for technology in agriculture. We have seen the potential for truly innovative solutions to the problem of market access first hand. We have designed, developed and tested dozens of prototypes; used the very latest tools in big data and human-centred design to develop innovative solutions; and – most importantly – spent all our time in-market experimenting and getting real product feedback from farmers and buyers. We are building on what has been learnt from and we are responding directly to services that farmers themselves are asking for - not deciding what they ought to want.
Based on our on-the-ground research we have developed three core design principles:
- We don’t believe in SMS-first solutions for farmers: 60% of all handsets sold in Kenya last year were smartphones and 1 in 2 Kenyan adults used mobile data in the last 30 days. Smartphone enabled and savvy farmers are the rapidly growing, early adopting segment that we need to design for.
- We must observe and build on existing digital behaviours: 100,000s of farmers and buyers are posting on digital forums (Facebook, WhatsApp groups, classified ads websites etc). Facebook is currently the most successful digital agricultural trading platform in Kenya by volume and growth. In just one farmer Facebook group alone there are almost 40,000 members, growing by over 1,000 members per month. We believe that a successful solution in this space must build on what’s already working and not try to force behaviour change.
- We must respond to farmer stated problems and design suggestions: digitally savvy farmers can articulate the issue better than we can, and design interfaces for themselves better than we can. We don’t even have to ask farmers, online farmer forums are full of problem statements and design suggestions that we can learn from. This isn’t where a solution should be tested, but rather, incepted.
So what are farmers actually saying?
Although Facebook is currently the most popular online platform for buying and selling produce, many farmers are vocal about the fact that it is not an ideal solution. As demonstrated by this Facebook post, farmers posting produce for sale often don’t find the right buyer – even when they have what “should be an automatic disposable product” such as milk.
Another farmer agrees, yet this demonstrates one of the key challenges of these large Facebook message feeds – information is getting lost in the noise.
Another key limitation of these message feeds is that information is not recorded in a useful way. Many farmers have posted what they are growing and where they are located, but this information is getting buried in the noise.
But the most consistently raised challenge is around trust, this farmer speaks for many when she asks whether a list of trusted buyers could be generated.
The real farmer quotes above are not one-offs, these same issues are being posted again and again everyday!
These farmer voices pose technologists a question
How can we build a better digital solution, accessible to all farmers and buyers who use Facebook and other online tools like this (as well as those who could, but don’t yet)? A solution that means the hundreds of posts per day from farmers and buyers don’t get lost in the noise? A solution where there is relevant profile data on farmers and buyers? And a solution which gives farmers the ability to exclude bad brokers, listing ‘good brokers’ and buyers only?
Where should we start?
Too many solutions try and re-invent the wheel. Rather than starting from scratch, how can we use the millions of public digital data points online to build solutions? How can we connect to existing platforms and aggregate live streams of information already being generated online?