On the slopes of Mukuuri hilly terrain in Embu County, opposite the ancient Kirimiri forest, Doris Mwende Mugendi reaches out for her mobile phone to find out when it is likely going to rain specifically in this village, what kind of seeds and farm inputs are recommended for this short rainy season, and also to know if there are any predicted pests and crop diseases that are likely going to strike any time soon.
“This village based agricultural information is now available on our mobile phones free of charge,” said the 28 year old farmer who grows different types of crops on a one acre piece of land.
The platform known as AgriBot is a digital agricultural extension service developed by Microsoft and rolled out by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) through collaboration with county governments of Kiambu and Embu.
“When this technology was developed and introduced for the first time in Kiambu County, the main aim was to enable smallholder farmers who use feature phones also known as kabambe access the important information in a language they understand,” said Angela Njoki, a Content Developer working for Microsoft.
“However, with time, the AgriBot has been improved so that farmers with smart phones can access it through whatsapp and telegram, where they can watch and download videos that demonstrate good agronomic practices in a local language,” she said.
At the point of registration, the farmer dials a common code ‘40139’ on feature phone, and if they have a smart phone, then they can save the number ‘0758 318 589’. The farmer then sends the word ‘MENU’ to the code in case of the feature phones, or the same to the whatsapp number.
“These services come without any cost particularly for feature phone users. But for smart phones, the farmer may incur the cost of normal bundles used to access whatsapp in case they are not in a WiFi hotspot,” said Njoki.
The farmer is then prompted with a message to select the suitable language, followed by another message asking for personal information such the name, the age and gender. This is followed by further prompts seeking for the location from the county level to the village of interest to the farmer.
According to Njoki, Microsoft has already collaborated with AGRA, county governments and other implementing partners to collect basic information specific to different villages across the two counties.
Messages related to something like weather forecast are updated every day, while others such as particular seed varieties to be planted in those villages or the recommended farm inputs are updated every season.
In Mukuuri Village for example, the bot has specific crop information about maize, climbing beans, pigeon peas, bush beans, and soybeans because these are the most thriving crops in this village, which is different from other neigbouring villages.
Beyond the identified crops, the bot provides information on how to make and use manure and other good agronomic practices, about fall army worms, weather forecast, locust reporting, contacts to nearest certified agrodealers in the area, and also about crop insurance.
On this day for example, Mugendi in Mukuuri village was interested in climbing beans. After a few steps, she prompted the bot about land preparation and spacing. “Prepare rows at a spacing of 60 cm and dig planting holes within the rows at a spacing of 10 cm,” read the message that appeared after the prompt.
She further went on to find the best recommended varieties and the respond was “Here is a list of certified climbing bean seed varieties suitable for your area; MAC 64-Mavuno, MAC 34-Tamu, MAC 13-Safi.”
She went on to find about the weather and she was asked by the bot to pick the timeline, being today, tomorrow, next three days and next five days.
After choosing the fourth option of five days, she learned that there were only going to be light rains, not suitable for planting.
The bot has an option for a farmer to send feedback to the management team.
Through the AgriBot, Village Based Advisors (VBAs) are now using it to send important messages to hundreds of farmers just by a click of a button at no cost.
The VBAs is a concept developed by AGRA, and it has been implemented in many counties across the country. Typically, a VBA is an elite smallholder farmer in a particular village who has been trained to train villagers on good agronomic practices, identification of the right farm inputs and seeds, and they are lead sellers of the certified seeds and farm inputs to village farmers where they earn a commission.
VBAs are also linked to county government agricultural officers so that they can report any new paste of disease in their respective villages, and also report back to the villagers any new development in the agricultural sector.
“Before we got this tool, it was difficult to reach out to several farmers because it could mean that I buy airtime, and start calling or sending messages to each one of them,” said Elizabeth Ng’endo, a VBA who mans a number of villages in Gatundu North. “Thanks to the AgriBot, I can even advertise other products I need to sell, or do the same for any farmer with just a click of a button,” said the farmer who is also practicing poultry keeping and dairy farming.
According to Nixon Mageka Gecheo, AGRA’s ICT expert, the tool has come to fill the gap of the ratio of extension officers, which stands at one officer to 5000 farmers, which has been far higher than the recommended ratio of one officer serving 400 farmers.
“With the bot in place, farmers have been able to make critical decisions on what seed variety to plant and how to do it in a good agronomic way. This has seen yields improve in the trial phase,” said Gecheo.
According to Patric Njeru, the Head of Crop Development in Embu County, the impact is so huge because it is now easy to reach out to thousands of farmers in the shortest time possible.
“We hope to keep improving it so that it has market information and if possible, VBAs are asking if we can make it possible to communicate with a target group so that the same message is not sent to everyone, including those who do not need it,” said Njoki.
So far, over 50,000 farmers from Kiambu and Embu Counties are already accessing the services on daily basis, according to the Microsoft database.