WSuch feed is best tolerated by two-week-old chicks? ”asks Dorcas from Maralal. “Should I take turns planting Sukuma cabbage and tomatoes in my field?” Tharaka-Nithi thinks. And Maulyne from Murang'a wants to know whether she can feed her “dairy cows moldy corn flour?”

Just a few years ago, the three small farmers in Kenya might have asked their neighbors for advice, waited for a farm adviser to visit, or experimented with luck. Today they don't have to ponder for long. Within a few minutes, Dorcas receives a feed schedule for his chicks, Darrell is highly recommended to change crops in the vegetable garden, and Maulyne learns that the old corn flour is in no way suitable as animal feed due to aflatoxins - toxins formed by molds.

They came to this advice conveniently via mobile phone. Because the three farmers sent their questions via SMS to the knowledge platform Wefarm. According to CEO Kenny Ewan, Wefarm is the “world's largest rural digital network” with around 1,9 million users in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It is based on the idea, says Ewan, that "for every agricultural problem there is a farmer somewhere who already knows a solution".

Peer-2-peer advice: small farmers share their experiences via SMS.

With the help of machine learning, Wefarm analyzes the short messages according to content, location and language. Then algorithms determine who is most likely to provide answers in the network - and they reach the questioner on average after only 13 minutes.

This service is anything but a niche offer, says Ewan. "Smallholder agriculture is probably the largest industry in the world: Around 70 percent of the global food supply comes from small farmers." 

Agtech for Africa

Wefarm is far from the only provider that develops software specifically for the large group of small farmers. The African market alone has hundreds of applications for the agricultural sector, the Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation CTA, which is operated jointly by the EU and developing countries, found in a study published in 2019. The catchphrase is "Digitalization for Agriculture" or D4AG for short. This includes all those digital technologies, innovations and data with the help of which agricultural value chains should be changed for the better by ensuring higher productivity, better harvest management, market access or financing. 

"Digitization can bring about the modernization and change in African agriculture," believes CTA Director Michael Hailu, and he is not alone with this opinion. Whether the EU, the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) or corporations like Alibaba, IBM or Mastercard: More and more players are exploring ways in which smart applications can increase the productivity of smallholders in developing countries. 

This is necessary because of the growing world population: According to the United Nations, 2050 billion people will have to fill their plates by 9,7, which would be almost two billion more than today. The pressure on the agricultural sector is increasing, especially in Africa, where much of the population growth is expected to take place. According to the CTA, agricultural productivity would have to at least double to meet continental demand. But the yields of the 250 million African farmers are still low today. Many only work small plots of less than two hectares, often without access to agricultural resources such as high-quality seeds, machines and irrigation systems. In addition, the sector is coming under increasing pressure due to the effects of climate change such as changed precipitation, periods of drought or pest infestation.

Young and dynamic

The tech solutions on offer are as diverse as the problems of the farmers themselves: apps offer information about markets and prices, weather conditions or cultivation methods. With mobile applications, sick plants can be diagnosed and counterfeit seeds recognized, agricultural machinery can be rented and buyers can be found for harvesting. Around 400 D4AG solutions were available in Africa in 2018, more than half of which were on the market for a maximum of three years. Around 33 million small farmers have registered for the solutions specially developed for them. 

Despite high double-digit growth rates, you shouldn't be blinded by these figures: The CTA Report estimates that only 42 percent of registered users actually use the solutions, and sometimes only with support, for example from booking agents. And only 15 to 30 percent of all registered users are considered so “active” that they would benefit from regular use. How effective the apps actually are, "has hardly been investigated, the sector is still too young and the data is not transparently accessible," explains Heike Baumüller from the ZEF Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn. According to the CTA, however, there are “indications that D4AG solutions have positive direct and indirect effects on the yields and incomes of smallholders”. 

Interview with Heike Baumüller, Center for Development Research ZEF

Building block with potential

Heike Baumüller, senior scientist at the Center for Development Research ZEF at the University of Bonn, on the trend towards agricultural apps for Africa's small farmers.

In any case, apps open up new possibilities. For example, many farmers lack the money to purchase Agricultural machinery. In Nigeria alone, according to the Abuja-based start-up Hello Tractor, 750.000 tractors are missing. "However, due to the small areas and the low utilization, a separate tractor would not make economic sense for many small farmers anyway," explains Priscilla Asonibare from Hello Tractor.

The start-up therefore brings the idea of ​​"using instead of owning" - which has a long tradition in Austria due to machine rings in agriculture - to Africa in a modern form: farmers can rent, pay for and value tractors using a smartphone app. The machines themselves provide real-time data on utilization and location, which makes abuse and theft more difficult and motivates owners to make their tractors available. 

Such shared economy approaches could advance the much-needed mechanization of agriculture. The scaling of the model is in turn easier to implement with the public and private sectors than alone - at least that's the current strategy of Hello Tractor. As part of a partnership with the US tractor manufacturer John Deere, which wants to open up a new growth market in Africa, the start-up would soon like to bring thousands of new tractors to African fields.

Interview with Priscilla Asonibare, Hello Tractor

Uber for farmers

The Nigerian start-up Hello Tractor wants to make agriculture more efficient, says spokeswoman Priscilla Asonibare.

Difficult customers

So far, only a few providers have managed to achieve more than a million registrations and thus a relevant size. Established companies such as the mobile operator Safaricom in Kenya naturally find it easier than a small start-up. After all, it can be challenging to even reach the target group of farmers: You have to visit, convince and train them in often remote areas so that they can use the applications properly. The app developers have to take into account the often low level of education: some applications “speak” to the users, because many small farmers cannot read. Wefarm's software accepts regional languages ​​and recognizes variations in spelling, typing errors, and incorrect punctuation. 

Access to technology also complicates the spread. The Plantix plant diagnosis app, for example, already has one million active users worldwide, especially in India, but Africa is only just beginning, explains manager Bianca Kummer: “The data prices for the Internet in Africa are compared to other developing regions still very expensive. Internet coverage in rural areas and smartphone penetration among small farmers is still not sufficient. ”Widely used platforms such as Wefarm or Digi-farm therefore still offer their services via SMS. 

Game Changer

D4AG solutions are likely to change agriculture. Hundreds of millions of smallholders could use digital services in the coming years, the authors of the CTA study estimate that a billion euro market is emerging. But even the smartest apps cannot solve all problems. If there is a lack of roads, electricity or irrigation, even the most well-connected small farmers will struggle to turn their floors upside down.


Apps for small farmers

Diagnostics via digital image

Diagnostic tool for showy plants: Plantix detects diseases

The leaves of the coconut palm turn black and no one can be asked why? Nowadays pictures of ailing plant can be sent via smartphone. The Plantix diagnostic tool (from the German start-up PEAT) uses artificial intelligence to analyze smartphone images in a matter of seconds. The popular app receives tens of thousands of images a day and is therefore also suitable for showing the spread of pests. The Agrix Tech app (Cameroon) is new on the market. It also recognizes plant diseases and suggests treatment tips - also as a voice message in several African languages.

Tractor for a day

A rental tractor is better than no tractor.

Whether plowing, sowing, harvesting - small farmers usually have to do this manually or with draft animals. The Nigerian start-up Hello Tractor, founded in 2014, wants to promote mechanization by enabling farmers to rent tractors as needed. You can place the order via an app or an agent. The rental tractors are equipped with a GPS monitoring device, which provides the owner with real-time data on the location, the level in the tank, the operating hours and maintenance requirements. Customers can in turn rate the tractor on the platform. Hello Tractor is active in twelve countries, from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Bangladesh and India. Trotro Tractor (Ghana) and Trringo (India) also offer small farmers access to rental tractors.

One stop farm

Digifarm in Kenya is a digital platform especially for small farmers.

Many agricultural apps offer their users money transactions via mobile phones. M-Pesa, which was launched in 2007 by the Kenyan mobile operator Safaricom, is regarded as a pioneer for mobile money transfers and now has more than 30 million users. In 2017, Safaricom launched DigiFarm, a mobile phone platform especially for small farmers. It offers access to various services: from loans for the purchase of seeds and fertilizers, agricultural tutorials, crop insurance and soil analysis to direct communication with processing companies. According to Safaricom, Kenya already exists
1,2 million registered DigiFarmer.

Direct wire to the buyer

Digital marketplaces make it easier for small farmers to sell their raw materials.

Small farmers may find it difficult to find buyers for their crops. Digital marketplaces make it easier to trade agricultural products. The startup AgroCenta, founded in Ghana in 2016, brings together small farmers and large customers such as breweries and feed manufacturers via an app. Commodities such as rice, corn, millet and soy are traded. Payment is made via mobile phone, customary middlemen are avoided. The start-up takes over the transport of the crops to the customer, advises small farmers and supports them in accessing financial services such as crop insurance and pensions. According to AgroCenta, the income of around 48.000 participating farmers increases by up to 25 percent.

Photos: Hello Tractor, Dominic Chavez / World Bank, Plantix, Safaricom / Digifarm, A'Melody Lee / World Bank