Jamila Abass is helping farmers trapped in subsistence agriculture move into commercial farming by leveraging available mobile technology to provide needed real-time information and incentivize collective action. Jamila’s technology platform links farmers to markets and creates an ecosystem of knowledge exchange, aggregation, and opportunity spotting that shifts them into productive commercial farming. Thus, Jamila is creating a path out of poverty for these farmers and enabling them to meet the growing demands for produce across the region.
The New Idea
Jamila has created an accessible, easy-to-use tool that enables farmers to acquire information about the current prices of different crops in specific markets throughout Kenya. She is also working to bolster their bargaining power and business planning abilities. Using their mobile phones, farmers can send simple inquiries and gain access to real-time price information for specific crops in the regions in which they live. Government data of this sort is theoretically available. However, the wholesale commodities prices are contained in an Excel file that must be downloaded from the National Farmers Information Service. Not only is this inaccessible to most rural farmers, the data currently available online is out of date. Jamila’s query-based model of real-time data access builds on Ashoka Fellow Adrian Mukhebi’s Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange innovations in capturing and sharing accurate wholesale commodities prices but goes one step further to make the information instantaneously available to individual farmers nationwide.
In addition to sharing price information, the platform is the first virtual marketplace for small-scale farmers in Kenya because individuals who use the system to check prices are also logging their available offers on the platform. The M-Farm system provides farmers a group-selling service to connect with other farmers from their area to jointly market crops in greater volume, thereby helping them access large-scale local and international markets. Since farmers often need to have large quantities of produce available in a short timeframe to meet the needs of exporters and large-scale retailers, this tool is helping thousands of farmers gain access to these opportunities. In the same way, M-Farm farmers are also connected to suppliers—with collective buying power, which enables them to get significant discounts on farming inputs such as seeds and fertilizer. M-Farm manages all this through a nationwide network of agents modeled after the ubiquitous mobile airtime and money transfer agents across the country.
Through these efforts, Jamila is rewiring and networking today’s small, scattered, and underperforming subsistence farmers in Kenya. Clusters of farmers, wholesale buyers, and agricultural input dealers are seeing the immediate benefits of this greater access and interaction. But a more profound change is occurring. By incentivizing entrepreneurial activity and collective action, M-Farm is helping to usher in a wave of commercial farming led by smallholder farmers. Through the exchange of ideas, more transparent competition, active knowledge exchange, and aggregation, Jamila is helping to create the groundwork for vast new opportunities in commercial agriculture in East Africa.
Subsistence farmers in East Africa are trapped. Given limited access to markets, expensive inputs, and little transparency across the value chain, remote farmers simply hope to break even, and many actually operate at a loss. Remittances and non-farm activity subsidize their agricultural activities, leading some agriculture experts to suggest that farmers lay down their shovels and hoes since many would be better off leaving their fields fallow. Yet farming is a way of life, a birthright, and despite slim chances of breaking out of poverty, 80 percent of Kenyans subsist on their small plots and meager agricultural activities. With few incentives to invest more in farms that lack access to markets (on the producer side) or to do more business with such a scattered and poorly organized lot (as the buyers complain), East African farms remain some of the least improved or productive on the continent.
While certain interventions tackle pieces of this challenge—like innovations in access to more affordable inputs, better market access, and business planning—what is truly needed is an effort to shift whole groups of farmers into regular, more financially rewarding commercial farming. Price information is a key investment in this effort where there is currently no up-to date access to real-time price information to help farmers make smarter decisions when dealing with middlemen. More transparency of this nature would lead to better planning and greater efficiency from scale. Unfortunately, current solutions are not as dynamic as the daily commodity prices (static, rather than real-time, information is provided) and, therefore, are of little value.
Indeed, farmers have been introduced to many “solutions” in the past. Many organizations have felt compelled by their struggles and inspired by the potential opportunities for growth. However, infrastructure isn’t in place or they exhausted their resources and fizzled out with minimal impact. Citizen organizations (COs) operate on short timelines or abandon their efforts when they miss targets or prove to be unsustainable. Any new intervention in this space will need to address a culture of dependency and the sense of mistrust that has been created.
Inspired by her childhood experiences in small-scale farming, which she did as a hobby, and compelled to address the daily challenges faced by Kenyan farmers, Jamila became obsessed with applying her entrepreneurial and technical skills in a meaningful way. She initially hypothesized that the three major challenges facing small farmers were a lack of readily available price information, lack of access to brokers, and generally high production costs. Jamila left her job in Nairobi to spend more time getting to know farmers and their needs. Satisfied that these were indeed the major challenges faced by farmers, she returned to Nairobi and developed a suite of innovative mobile tools. But when she reconnected with the farmers and shared her solutions, she realized she had missed the mark.
Jamila developed a phone-based system that helped farmers to access price information, but this information alone didn’t increase farmers’ bargaining power. Most farmers, it turns out, only have access to one buyer. Jamila had assumed that brokers would use the platform to do collective marketing and purchasing, but the farmers were working on such a small scale that this too was not used by the bigger brokers and export marketers. She also realized that even if she were able to get input costs down by buying at scale, the farmers’ lack of access to these inputs presented huge complications and hidden costs. Jamila was deflated but a key insight stuck with her: She had met many middlemen and realized that most were redundant and, if removed, one could redistribute what might have been their profit across a more lean value chain. However, the “middleman” closest to the farmer had to stay. This person was actually adding value. Jamila recognized that the middleman could play a greater aggregating role and mitigate the effects of incredibly small-scale production, lack of access and slim profit margins. Everyone else was taking a generous cut for little value addition. Jamila used this knowledge to revise her model. M-Farm’s three pillars were to be information, agents, and aggregation.
Considering the terrible state of government pricing data, M-Farm deployed two agents to every major market in the country. Information is collected anonymously twice each day and disseminated to farmers. The system is so effective and accurate that the government is now interested in deploying the model nationwide. A geo-map to help the government with real-time economic data analysis is also included, and this pulls from all 14,000 farmers currently signed onto the platform. In the future and with more farmers on the M-Farm platform, Jamila envisions a fully automated commodity exchange system where the real-time information on various commodity prices will not come from these anonymous data collectors but from the daily trading between farmers and buyers on the M-Farm platform.
One of the enabling advances that paved the way for this kind of opportunity has been the unprecedented recent technological development in East Africa. M-Farm’s use of databases and analytics to organize buyers and sellers and track trends and opportunities, paired with the capacity of robust mobile telephone and Internet connectivity across East Africa, make this information accessible and potentially available to millions of users simultaneously. The robust information management systems at M-Farm can quite easily tackle the problem of integrating subsistence farmers who are currently disconnected dots in the agricultural space. By using basic phones on the farmer front-end and customized software at back, M-Farm has a nuanced, up-to-date understanding of the needs of buyers and availability of goods and services from producers.
But for all its technical sophistication, Jamila knows that the success of the M-Farm model is mostly due to its offline features. In 2012, M-Farm launched their agent network to help the farmers meet the quality standards of bulk buyers. The agency model features drop-off/pick-up points that are run by an M-Farm agent who helps to aggregate farmers around bulk orders. Farmers are not tied into contracts and can opt out if they get a better price from another buyer. Currently, there are 16 agents and six signed agreements with bulk buyers. Farmers receive 100 percent of the money that they ask for their products while M-Farm covers its costs by charging the buyer a 10 percent fee for facilitating the process. Of the fee, 40 percent goes to the agent—her commission—and 60 percent back into M-Farm to finance operations. In addition to coordinating this aggregation process, the agent is also responsible for recruiting more farmers to the network, providing them with extension services, and providing quality control oversight. The presence of the agent and the real business deals that she facilitates have helped build up farmers’ trust in this relatively new organization.
The agents are critically important since they are the frontline for M-Farm and the intermediary between the organization and the farmers. Many of the agents were previously the last-mile middlemen. Farmers resented these young men on motorcycles for only showing up at harvest and for often resorting to extractive practices. Jamila has had to creatively rebrand agents as friends of the farmers. Today M-Farm agents are community members who work with farmers throughout the growing season. They are available, visible, and provide quality control assurance. With access to M-Farm’s sophisticated analytical tools, the agents advise farmers on what to grow based on current market demand and future projections. Since their job is to ensure quality at the point of purchase, they are able to make up-front, final payments to farmers. In the future, and through partnerships with content providers, agents will be able to pass on more detailed planting advice, weather information, and the like.
M-Farm is now working with Kenya’s leading telecommunications provider, Safaricom, to integrate the M-Farm system with Safaricom’s mobile money transfer (M-pesa) service while also aggressively expanding the network of M-Farm agents. With a grant of $250,000 from the M-Pesa Foundation, over the next year the focus will be on setting up and implementing a nationwide agency network. M-pesa staff will help design processes for the recruitment and retention of staff as well as with security, monitoring, branding, messaging support, and marketing and sales strategies. Jamila has also linked M-Farm to the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture as a key partner in achieving Vision2030 (Kenya’s national development plan), an aim of which is to formalize all traders (effectively doing away with many middlemen) and replacing them with direct market channels and intelligent information systems, both of which M-Farm can provide.
M-Farm is bringing thousands of farmers into entrepreneurial, data-driven commercial farming while creating a nationwide map of these opportunities. In this way, Jamila is empowering entrepreneurs and brokers to act at scale by building on more strategic data and information to create exchanges and entrepreneurial opportunities for new players to foster change and build wealth in the rural economy. The first 686 farmers using the platform on average saw a 100-percent increase in their profits. There are now 14,000 farmers using M-Farm. Through international press and speaking engagements, Jamila has attracted attention from organizations in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and seven other countries, all of whom want to partner. While Africa-wide expansion is part of her ambitious plan, she recognizes that much of the early success of her work in Kenya is due to the fact that mobile use is incredibly high and mobile transactions are common, given the widespread use of M-pesa nationwide. So while she surveys the continent for expansion opportunities, her current focus is to ensure the long-term sustainability of her Kenya operations. One strategy M-Farm is testing is monetizing the commodity price information that it sells to radio stations and TV stations. They are also looking to sell their data and original research to companies in need of such information for their strategic planning.
Jamila was born in Northeastern Kenya, a vast and arid land that shares a border with Somalia and the Indian Ocean. As a child she and her brother used to grow coriander and kale near the family well and sell their produce to their neighbors. Despite the inherent challenges of farming in a desert, Jamila was not deterred and worked hard to tend her small plot.
Early on, Jamila desired to give back to her community, but the more she excelled academically, the further she strayed from her agricultural roots. She won admission to a prestigious all-girls national secondary school outside Nairobi and was then awarded a scholarship to attain her bachelor of science in computer science at Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Morocco.
As a young programmer in Nairobi, Jamila was involved in various technology forums, incubators, and support groups. She was a leader of AkiraChix, a group of Nairobi-based hackers, developers, and programmers, and she regularly participated in business plan competitions and hackathons. But even while hanging out in a lime green iHub incubator space or surfing the web at a chic Nairobi café, the struggles her pastoralist family faced growing up nagged at her. Jamila came to realize that her people got raw deals because of limited options and bad information. By reading the papers and talking to friends in Nairobi, she understood the scale of the problem. When Jamila and some close friends began discussing what they could do—surrounded by techies and smart phones and young developers—the idea for M-Farm was born. A few winning runs at local business plan competitions, many accolades in the international press, and several years later, M-Farm is poised to spread far beyond its current membership and transform the lives of many thousands more small farmers.