For Farmers, By Farmers: An Interview with WeFarm on their Community-Building Technology

From foodtank.com, by Sarah Small
For Farmers, By Farmers: An Interview with WeFarm on their Community-Building Technology

For the 75 percent of the world population without an internet connection, gaining access to support and information can be difficult or nearly impossible. WeFarm is a collaborative community of small-scale farmers in rural communities who use SMS messaging to share questions and solutions to their peers around the world. 

WeFarm is currently available in three languages and four countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Peru, and most recently, Dominican Republic. Created for farmers, by farmers, WeFarm breaks language barriers to share fast and innovative solutions to problems such as how to control coffee rust disease.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Michaela Peicheva, Communications and Marketing Manager at WeFarm to learn more about how the organization connects farmers around the world.

Food Tank (FT): What is a typical conversation like between two WeFarm users?

Michaela Peicheva (MP): A great example of a typical interaction would be a farmer in Kenya asking a question about starting a micro-business on rearing rabbits, then not only receiving answers back from other farmers in Kenya, but also from farmers in Peru and the Dominican Republic who might have been keeping rabbits for years and have knowledge and experience to share .

We have a huge range of questions and answers moving through the system, from best farming practices to livestock diseases, to starting a microbusiness. Everyday we see new questions on different things that we haven't seen before.

FT: How much time does it generally take for the farmer’s message to be translated and then forwarded on to another WeFarm user?

MP: WeFarm instantly and automatically sends out a farmer's question via SMS to a selection of people in their local or national area. This means he or she can receive locally appropriate answers in terms of climate and market conditions within a short period of time.

However, WeFarm also has the unique capability of having these questions translated and shared with farmers in other countries or even continents. The idea being that farmer who asked the question can receive a selection of both locally relevant information as well as new insight and ideas from afar.

An answer from Africa can take a little longer to reach Latin America, or vice versa, due to time zones. However, some of the most interesting knowledge being shared through WeFarm happens between farmers in very different locations.

FT: Can you expand upon the transition between the pilot program and WeFarm today?

MP: WeFarm was piloted and developed as a project of the Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF), a U.K. charity, between 2010 and 2014. These pilots were designed to ensure that farming communities were involved in each stage of the design in order to supply feedback on each iterative stage and ensure that the final system had been developed with farmers for farmers.

In January 2015, WeFarm launched both the scalable version of the system in Kenya, and realized a long held ambition to be incorporated as a social enterprise subsidiary of CPF.

WeFarm is now an independently run social enterprise that will seek to generate revenue to become both sustainable and scalable in the long term. WeFarm was recently listed as one of the ‘Hottest 100 Start-ups’ in the U.K..

FT: ​Which country has the most users? Do these users primarily communicate with one another, or with farmers of other countries?

MP: Currently the majority of WeFarm users are in Kenya, as the system was launched there first. WeFarm will be launched at scale in Peru, Dominican Republic, and Tanzania over the next two to three months.

There are a real mix of interactions. While all messages are sent internationally, they are also sent to a number of people in the local area where the question was originally asked to ensure a range of responses. The idea being that farmers can not only access relevant local knowledge, but also valuable outside knowledge too.

FT: Farming is a hands-on profession. Have you encountered issues that WeFarm users cannot help each other with via SMS message?

MP: The vast majority of WeFarm users live in isolated areas, with few opportunities to access valuable information or advice. While an SMS message may seem like a very short and basic way of communicating, for our farmers, some of whom may be a 20 mile walk from the nearest internet connection, a text message may be the only way they have to share a problem or issue.

We would not begin to claim that a farm can be entirely managed through SMS messages, or that WeFarm can provide a solution for every single problem; however, it does provide a very effective platform to share knowledge, ideas and information.

FT: How do you account for climate differences?

MP: There are a couple of different ways in which climate differences and climate change relate to WeFarm. The first, as I already mentioned, is that questions are shared both locally and internationally, meaning people can receive answers from their own climate but also from other areas. With climate change being a major issue and challenge for our farmers at the moment, many of the issues being faced by communities are new to them. However they may not be new to other communities around the world. In reality, this means that climate change issues, such as the coffee rust disease which recently spread rapidly through Latin America, are a principal reason why it is important to have a system like WeFarm, where farmers share ideas on how to deal with these kinds of issues and where we can also help to track its spread.

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