What does a smallholder farmer in Kenya do when they want to know the best way to control weeds in their coffee crop? If they use Wefarm, all they have to do is shoot off a text.
Wefarm, the world’s largest farmer-to-farmer digital network, announced on Tuesday that it had raised $5 million in seed funding. The round was led by the Silicon Valley-based True Ventures, who were joined by WordPress Founder Matt Mullenweg, Blue Bottle Coffee CEO Bryan Meehan, and Skype founder Niklas Zennström. The Norrsken Foundation, LocalGlobe and Accelerated Digital Ventures (ADV) also participated.
Wefarm is aimed at the more than 500 million smallholder farmers in the world. These small scale farmers produce over 70 percent of the world’s food and spend over $400 billion on farm inputs and other services, annually—but many of them struggle to gain access to agricultural education, inputs, such as fertilizer, and traditional markets.
Because of these challenges, many small scale farmers come up with innovative, low-tech solutions to improve their yield. And with Wefarm, they can share their know-how with other farmers who might be struggling with the same obstacles, without leaving their farm. And it’s all available at no cost to the farmers.
Their recent funding indicates a growing interest in supporting and educating smallholder farmers, whose role will become all the more critical (and difficult) thanks to a growing world population and the threat of climate change.
What’s makes Wefarm’s 660,000-strong peer-to-peer network so special is its ability to connect farmers via the internet, even if they themselves don’t have access to the internet. Which means that a farmer in Kenya can ask a question about irrigation methods which might be answered by farmers in Uganda and Tanzania—even if none of them have access to wifi.
To get around the internet hurdle, Wefarm turns to SMS to exchange information. According to their website, while many smallholder farmers don’t have internet, over 90% of them have access to mobile phones. Wefarm decided to capitalize on that to make an information sharing network that’s facilitated by text messages. So if farmers run into a problem about the right spacing for their beans or how to feed their cattle to optimize milk production, they can just shoot off a (free) SMS to the local Wefarm number. Their question is instantly posted online, and crowdsourced responses are sent back to their mobile phone. Wefarm also offers translation services for their SMS’s, so farmers can ask questions and receive answers in their own languages.
Wefarm’s platform is open for discussion on any aspect of agriculture, which is obviously a pretty far-reaching subject. In addition to seeking advice on crops, water, and disease prevention, farmers also use this service to compare notes on input costs. That way, they know the right price to pay and won’t get ripped off. Some also use Wefarm as a platform to sell and buy their crops, or just get advice about how to find the right marketplace for their goods.
Unlike many ag-focused startups that take the top-down approach by starting with tech and trying to pitch it to farmers, Wefarm uses a bottom-up model. They start with the farmers, and then connect them with simple technology. Really, all it’s offering is a bare-bones way for farmers to communicate; a sort of chat room which can operate without the internet. It’s sort of like a more low-tech, freestyle version of the online analytics-sharing platform Farmers Network, only Wefarm is free and covers a much wider range of topics.
As of now, Wefarm is operating in Kenya and Uganda, with plans to expand into Eastern and Sub-Saharan Africa. With a user retention rate of 90%, it seems that there is an actual need for this type of peer-to-peer information resource among farmers.
With their latest injection of funding, they hope to develop a set of new features for their farmer network. So far, they’ve only given details on one: Project Farmlog. This is a “smart farming assistant” that uses machine learning to give farmers crop and livestock support based on their questions. Wefarm has said that Project Farmlog will be interactive, though it doesn’t give concrete details on how it will actually help support farmers any more than their current services. It does promise, however, that it will work for anyone with a mobile phone.
And it’s from that simplicity where Wefarm derives it’s power and value. As more people join the service, more knowledge is immediately available. Which means that as Wefarm grows, so too will the crops across even more farms.