Mobile technology can promote sustainable agriculture initiatives across borders and landscapes.
The earth provides the human race with everything it needs to survive. Soil gives nutrients that grow our food, forests create oxygen for us to breathe, and rain provides enough water for plants and people.
Tragically, due to harsh climates and difficult farming conditions, some farmers in the world use unsustainable means to produce food. Over-extraction of terrestrial and aquatic resources, as well as the practice of slash and burn agriculture, threaten the environment we all rely on.
With the population set to increase to over 9 billion in the next 30 years, it is vital that farmers shift their management style to emphasize the sustainability of the landscapes supporting their activities, otherwise we may encounter a very dangerous food crisis.
There are many challenges faced in promoting sustainable agriculture, but information technology may hold the key to catalyzing the widespread uptake of sustainable farming practices, especially in developing countries.
Innovations are plentiful, but means for spreading the word about them are not
For seven years, I worked with indigenous communities in Peru to develop grassroots and sustainable farming projects. In this time, I witnessed firsthand the ingenuity, intelligence and expertise of local farming communities. I was always impressed by the low-cost, innovative solutions farmers would come up with to solve fresh problems. I was also inspired by the wealth of agricultural knowledge passed down through the generations.
But there seemed to be a distinct challenge in sharing these grassroots innovations. When living in remote areas, farmers often had not heard about the techniques being used by other farmers nearby.
The transformational power of text messages
The UN estimates that about 80% of the world’s food is produced by 500 million smallholder farm households, many of which pertain to the group of 1.4 million people living under the global poverty line (USD $1.25 per day). These farming communities are working with limited financial resources and little to no technological support, due to the fact that many developing countries are not equipped with expansive networks for internet connection.
Thus, this multitude of smallholder, marginalized farmers do not have access to information that could make a big impact on their farms. This creates an unfortunate reality where the people who could most benefit from vital information are the same people who who cannot access it.
After my time in Peru, I joined Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF), a UK charity that works with smallholder farmers around the world. I began to develop WeFarm as part of their start-up team with the goal of connecting smallholders to the information they need.
WeFarm is a mobile platform that enables farmers to ask questions on farming and share farming tips with other farmers across Africa, Latin America and Asia, simply by sending a free SMS. We launched it as an independent social enterprise in January 2015 and have grown very quickly in a short time. There are now more than 25,000 farmers in Kenya and Peru sharing information with one another through WeFarm, and 3.3 million SMS shared through our system.
I believe that technology can play a critical role in encouraging sustainability. Through communication, education and generating business, technology has the opportunity to transform agriculture and lift millions of people out of poverty.
Sustainable farming practices are often shared through the WeFarm platform, from farmers promoting agroforestry, organic farming and intercropping to other farmers around the world. For many farmers, being sustainable simply makes sense. Some techniques shared through the network that are straight forward, and easy to implement include: growing bananas and coffee in the same field to make land more resistant to crop failure and/or low yield; and using organic manure, an inexpensive fertilizer, to enrich soil and improve crop yield.
Facilitating knowledge transfer across borders
We created a peer-to-peer system because we believe that with greater access to information, people are able to make better decisions. And who better to trust than other farmers who also rely on land for their livelihoods? Below are just some of the examples of messages around sustainability sent via WeFarm, straight from farmers:
“Sprinkle wood ash as an organic fertilizer if your soil is too acidic.” –Eben, Kenya
“Use rabbit droppings as an organic fertilizer for tomato plants as it will increase crop yield.” –James, Kenya
“Organic soils; six golden rules 1 – feed the soil 2 – Tread carefully 3 – dig only when needed, 4 – keep soil surface covered, 5 – do not over fertilize, 6 – check pH before liming. NB; soil is the starting point for organic farmers, life begins in the soil. So it’s important to know more about our soils and how to care for them.” Gordon, Kenya
“Farmers should always practice crop rotation and intercropping in order to utilise their lands properly.” Molly, Kenya
As you can see, the farming advice being shared on WeFarm is heartening and exciting. Can you imagine all of the knowledge a network of millions of farmers could benefit from? Working with small-scale farmers like this has once again proved to me that if you give marginalized individual a voice, they have incredibly valuable things to say.