Thursday, February 27, 2014

Here's to financing Kenyan farmers!

Four fourth-year University of Nairobi students pursuing Computer Science have embarked on linking farmers with financiers.
While there has been a vigorous campaign in the last two decades to get Kenyan youths back to the farms, the quartet has taken a more unconventional approach on the matter.
James Kimani, Caroline Muteti, Rita Kimani and Peris Nyaboe have created an online solution that not only profiles farmers and the type of farming they do but also allows them to connect with youths and group investors.
Their platform, Farmdrive, helps to connect individuals interested in farming — and who while finding agriculture profitable have no time for the venture — with farmers looking for money to expand their activities.
“It all started with a regional competition which placed a call through the different technology hubs in the region for agricultural startups that could address the challenge of lack of information which most farmers face, or come up with ways to boost their access (to information) through use of technology,” said Ms Kimani.
The challenge
The classmates got interested in the challenge when the Computing for Development (C4D) lab housed at the university urged students pursuing technology courses to take part in the competition.
During a brainstorming session, the four noted that there were several tools created to enhance information sharing and communication between farmers and extension workers and chose to focus on ways of making it easier for farmers to get finances.
“We all study computer science but we have our specialities which we are using to create synergy. What we are trying to do is revolutionise how farmers get access to financial services in the country,” said Mr Kimani.
Farmers can to feed their revenue and expense information in the Farmdrive application and be able to get a graphical representation of whether or not their agricultural venture has good returns or is a money drain.
“As they continue to do so they are able to build their farm profile within the system and we can analyse how their farming is doing, creating a portfolio of creditworthiness for potential investors,” he said.
Their research on information and finance access by farmers was carried out in Kikuyu, Thika and Kiambu.
The four members of Farmdrive who are keen on linking  farmers to individual financiers

“Most of the farmers we talked to hardly kept records on how much they were investing in their farms and did not track productivity. Farmers who had some form of recording systems said that accessing money from banks and microfinance institutions was too bureaucratic,” Ms Nyaboe said.
“At the same time,” Ms Kimani added, “We had also done research on individuals who were passionate about farming and who had funds to invest in farming but either did not have land or time to do it.”
Although loans are awarded to individual farmers, they are expected to form small groups of five on the platform in order to act as a verification tool and reduce defaulting.
This innovative idea saw them through to the recent Agrihackathon championship in Kigali. While Farmdrive did not make it to the top three innovations, the four were able to network and pitch their ideas to an array of venture capitalists and investors some of who are seeking to invest in their platform.
“The simple bookkeeping application that we had conceived six months ago is not what it is right now. It has undergone several coding and other verification systems to make it simpler and user friendly to farmers. We keep on improving the application,” said Ms Kimani.
Unlike other solutions available in the market which are either Android-based, Farmdrive is built on a Responsive Web Design (RWD) aimed at crafting websites to provide an optimal viewing experience.
This means that farmers interested in using Farmdrive are not restricted to a mobile phone with a particular operating system.
As long as their phone has an internet connection they can access the website whose content adjusts to the screen of connecting device.
While farmers are not charged to use the platform, Farmdrive provides an annual membership fee to investors interested in agriculture. This allows them to access information about farmers on the platform and provides a system through which they can contact them.
“We have checks and balances which ensure that investors are legitimate so that we do not expose farmers to criminals,” said Mr Kimani.
The team has been running a pilot that involves 20 farmers in Kiambu County.
While they have been receiving positive feedback from the users, they are looking to validate their business model before releasing the application to the market by end of the first quarter.
“Agribusiness is a profitable venture and also expansive in nature, for now we are focusing on connecting dairy and poultry farmers to individual investors. In the long run we hope to expand nationwide and to include more farmers, allowing an individual in Nairobi to invest in a maize farm in Trans Nzoia County,” said Ms Kimani.
Mr Kimani said that he was comfortable working with the three female students, who he described as innovative and considerate in the management of the startup.
He said that most of the business decisions are consensual.
“Since we are techies and not quite privy to agribusiness, we have sought experts in agriculture and business to be our mentors and help in validating our business models. If we cannot agree among ourselves about a decision to take ,we seek the opinion of the experts,” Ms Nyaboe said.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hail the Kenyan farmer

Five farmers’ groups from Kenya have been recognised for their role in promoting income diversity, youth and women participation and market access.
The five were feted during the 2013 Farmer of the Year Awards (FOYA) which are organised by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa and the African Investment Climate Research.

Kenyan farmer shows her crops. Photo credit: Jimmy Wambua (USAID)

Kenya National Federation of Agri Producers (Kenfap) was second in the income diversity award while Naima Development, a community- based organisation which focuses on building the capacity of small-scale farmers in Bungoma north district was recognised for integrating youth and women into farming.

Owefwe Obwambami Self-Help Group which also operates in Bungoma County was recognised for increasing market access among its members. Schemers Community Based Organisation and the Hekima Horticulture Self-help Group were awarded for advocacy and governance respectively.

Dr John Mutunga of Kenfap said many farmers’ organisations were unable to sustain themselves because of insufficient funding. Kenfap raises money to support its outreach programmes among farmers.

Naima founder Albert Wafula said the group has since 2006 trained 318 women and 75 youth in banana, maize and poultry production.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rap them back to the farms

While people will still be in the valentine weekend spirit, contemporary Kenyan rapper will be holding another concert in Nakuru town within the Rift valley.
Unlike other concerts where music will be the main theme, here all matters agriculture will hold first priority.

It is another town for the firming is cool circuit perhaps an effort to target the youth in particular to   go back to farming.

The use of Juliani as the brand face for the farming is cool nationwide tour is symbolic not only because the rapper has a huge following on social media and also due to his celebrity status but also due to the fact that he came from a humble background and before making it  big in the music industry was barely trying to survive like many  unemployed Kenyan youth.

It is the same message that Nigerian superstar D’banj was selling in addis ababa last month  as part of the one campaign lobbying governments to increase the financial allocation to the agricultural sector to about 10 per  cent of the national budget.

Soon after D’banj was officially launched there was a lot of criticism as to whether he was the right person for the job, as with the Juliani here back in Kenya, the main argument for many critics being that they neither sing about farming or potray the lifestyles of hardworking farmers.

I view things differently. By 2050 Africa will still have among the highest number of hungry people in the world only that the numbers would have doubled. Yet Africa as at now has the largest percentage of uncultivated land in the world and among the highest number of unemployed youths.

Me thinks. We need to get as many youths back to the farms as soon as possible in order to bolster the continent’s food baskets. If we are to rap them all the way back to the fields then so be it!!

So I urge you to take time from your lovey dovey moments this weekend and spread some farm love by turning up for some farm love if you will be in and around Nakuru!

You would be shock to learn how easy it is to access agricultural financing and other necessary farm inputs!!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Half acre money maker

At first glance it is easy for anyone to confuse her with a simple market lady.
It is Saturday morning and Pauline Mwangi is completely dressed down from her usual formal attire during the week and ready to work on her half-acre farm located at Kasarani in Nairobi.
First she checks on the quails, her most recent venture on the farm, to see if they have enough food and changes their drinking water.
Her next stop is the kienyeji (indigenous) chicken, which she rears in a nearby poultry house after ensuring that they are in perfect health, she goes on to walk around the rest of her farm. She has 100 chicken at the moment.
One can be excused to assume that she is in her rural county and not her home in Nairobi.
Ms Mwangi represents a new breed of city women, those who can have an eight-to-five job and still manage to indulge in their farming passion.
“When my children were born, I wanted them to have a healthy lifestyle. At that time there were all these fears about the origin of most of the food that it was being grown around sewers in Nairobi so I planted some bananas outside my house,” she said.

Growing interest

Before long she began planting just enough kales, coriander and parsley for her family to consume in a bid to reduce the trips she would make to the market in Githurai and some tokens for those who called at her home.
“Whenever my friends and family would come visit they would always want to buy some fresh vegetables for their homes and that was when I decided to scale up my farming into agribusiness,” she said.
Today, she grows tomatoes, strawberries, cabbages, kales, pepper, capsicum, spinach, cucumbers, bananas and some maize for sale to her neighbours, other customers as well as the nearby hotels.

Up scaling her passion was not an easy affair, her husband had to finance part of the capital intensive investments which she supplemented with her savings.
She would deliver three crates of tomatoes to the hotels thrice a week at between Sh1,000 and Sh1,500 per crate while she sold a kilo of capsicum for between Sh120 and Sh150 depending on the market price.

The urban farmer has 600 quails which she purchased mid last year because of the growing interest many people expressed in the bird’s meat. She has even bought an incubator so that she can hatch the quail eggs and continue with a fresh lot even as she sold the older ones.

“Right now my farm is all inclusive,” she said. “Previously I would have to hire a lorry and go all the way to Maasailand to look for manure but now I just use the droppings from the poultry houses.”

Before she turned to the kienyeji (local breed) chicken, Ms Mwangi tried her hand in rearing broilers. Although they matured faster they did not sell as much as she hoped because many of her clients preferred the local breed.

“Quails are like chicken, they even pick on each other so we separate the bullied from the rest of the lot. I first went home and brought some of the local chicken breed to rear but many of the chicks would die and soon I was forced to go back to the village and get a fresh lot,” she said.

She has two greenhouses one in which she has just finished harvesting the third crop of tomatoes and the other in which she is about to get her first capsicum harvest.

Each of the greenhouses is eight by 30 metres in size and cost about Sh250,000 to set up. On average she harvests between 200 and 250 kilogrammes of tomatoes per week and between 100 and 150 kilogrammes of capsicum weekly.

“This was the third time we were harvesting and the tomatoes were very small in size. Rather than have a crop that diminishes in size, I have chosen to uproot them and plant more capsicum,” she explained.

Since it is her first time to plant capsicum Ms Mwangi decided not to restrict herself in terms of looking for market for her crop advertising even on social media and agriculture oriented websites like Mkulima Young.

Daily duties

She has drilled a borehole in one corner and connected the whole farm to a drip irrigation system which makes it easier to water the crops in the mornings and evenings.

As she works as a marketer, Ms Mwangi has timed her deliveries to ensure that she makes them early enough before going to work or after 5pm when she has left the office.

The farmer has hired two people to help in the management of her farm — one dedicated to the poultry and the other whose work is to attend to the crops on the farm.

Getting the right farm help has, however, not been easy she admits as some of the people she hired in the past would not implement the daily duties that she had set out for them, especially after she left for work.
Ms Mwangi shows off part of her half acre farm in the backyard of her home in Nairobi.

“I would get back home and find that no weeding or spraying had been done and at other times I would get workers who were not as enthusiastic as I am in farming and would have to let them go,” she said.

“But I have come to realise that the quality of work that they do is directly linked to the benefit they see deriving from their work. I, therefore, try to show them that the having good produce is mutually beneficial to us all.”

Even though she gets to deliver produce to hotels daily, her most valued customers are the neighbours who knock on her door on Saturdays to buy fresh produce each spending an average of Sh1,000 who encouraged her to go into agribusiness.

Her advice to working women who want to try their hand in urban farming is to look for more than one alternative, especially in buying greenhouses in order to get a more genuine company.

“The first crop of your greenhouse may not give you back your investment but the returns are definitely there in farming,” says Ms Mwangi. “It is an art that you keep on learning everyday you drop the crops that you find are hard to move and plant more of those that the market

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reducing livestock diseases the tech way

Introduced in 2009, the digital pen technology continues to help veterinary officers enhance disease surveillance in arid and semi-arid areas in Kenya.
Forty nine digital pens were distributed to 29 districts across the country in a pilot project carried out jointly by the government in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) including Garissa, Tana River, Lamu, Mandera and Malindi.
Over the last two years, the Kenyan government has increased access to the digital pen technology for veterinary officers to an additional 50 districts.
According to Dr Samuel Kahariri, one of the vets who have pioneered the use of the digital pen, the technology has transformed the way disease surveillance was being done.
“We used to do surveillance and disease reporting the conventional way where reports would be written in triplicate, a copy would remain with the official on the ground another with the regional officer and the final one sent to Nairobi which would take about three weeks,” he said.
The pen which is manufactured by a South African company has a camera, processor, memory and Bluetooth .The vet officers in the country use the Bluetooth device in the digital pen to connect it to a Nokia phone model N72 which allows for easy information transmission.
While doing his disease surveillance, a vet would inspect the sickly animal and when writing the report on the digital paper he presses the start button and the infrared camera begins to record all that is being written.
On pressing the send button, the captured report is initially sent to the Nokia phone via Bluetooth before being relayed to a common diseases surveillance reporting server in than 10 seconds.
This in turn helps the veterinary head office in Nairobi map out endemic areas and prepare for any potential disease outbreaks especially for those which can be passed onto humans.
Some of the diseases that the technology has helped to reduce include Anthrax, Foot and Mouth, Rift Valley Fever and rabies.
One of the Veterinary officers use the digital pen for disease surveillance. Photo by FAO
The pen’s memory can store up to 40 such reports.
“The use of this digital pen technology has helped in emergency preparedness for disease outbreaks helping to reduce the loss of livestock especially among pastoralists and we want to ensure that all the 47 counties are connected to ensure even faster reporting,” he said.
In areas where the digital pen is not used, veterinary officers are able to feed the information of sickly animals through a mobile application that also relays the surveillance information in a matter of minutes.