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How can we unlock and share knowledge from remote areas without the Internet? We spoke to Kenny Ewan about real innovation, stigmatisation of developing countries and peer-to-peer SMS.

Only 40% of the world population has access to the Internet: this week’s Maker Monday is all about the 60% who don’t. WeFarm uses peer-to-peer SMS technology to field questions from farmers in Africa or Peru to each other and the rest of the world. There’s a wealth of farming knowledge, often going back many generations, and WeFarm are helping farmers share it, learn from it and also collect valuable data around disease and farming trends. We caught up with Kenny to talk about equality in access to information and how existing SMS technology can help give people a voice without the Internet.

WeFarm WeFarm

Q: Tell us about your background.

A: I grew up in a small town in the west coast of Scotland. Originally, I studied architecture at university, and after graduating I took a short-term job with an international development NGO in Peru helping design fish farms and schools. The short-term job became a seven year stay...I ended up as Executive Director, Latin America helping run the organisation across multiple counties.

In 2009, I came back to the UK to take a role as part of the start-up team for the Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation, where I designed the first version of WeFarm with my colleague Claire Rhodes. I became CEO of WeFarm when we set it up as a social business in 2015. I think I have always been interested in solving problems, whether that’s through physical structures or technology.

Q: What exactly is WeFarm?

A: WeFarm is a unique platform that connects farmers to vital information on agriculture, even without access to internet. It’s a free, peer-to-peer service which, enables farmers to receive crowd-sourced answers from other farmers and experts around the world via SMS or online. Farmers can send an SMS to WeFarm asking any question, and receive answers back within minutes, without leaving the farm.

We’re currently available in Kenya, Uganda and Peru, and there are more than 43,000 farmers registered and using the service regularly.

Q: What inspired you to create it?

A: The time I spent living and working in Peru, I worked very closely with indigenous communities on sustainability projects, everything from fish farms to beehives. Working with these people I gained a huge appreciation for the grassroots innovation that goes on every day. In my eyes, real innovation is using what you have to overcome complex challenges.

Many farmers come up with low-cost, ingenious ways to tackle climate change, improve their livelihoods, or start micro-businesses, but these ideas don’t travel very far when most farmers live in remote areas of the world without internet access, and are miles away from the nearest village. I started thinking... why isn’t there a centralised resource that focuses on agriculture?

When I joined Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF), an independent UK charity that works with co-operatives of coffee, tea and sugar farmers around the world, I met Claire Rhodes, WeFarm’s co-founder. Essentially, WeFarm was developed as a project within the start-up team that I was leading and was focussed on the idea of communication.

At the beginning, we wanted to build something internet based, but the reality is that the majority of people still did not have internet access, so we ended up building something available on the technology farmers have access to already.

Q: How are you funded? I see you’re at Wayra - has it been hard to find support to get up and running?

A: Over the three years that we were developing WeFarm we raised £650k in seed investment and funding through, through winning the 2014 Google Impact Challenge, Knight Foundation, Nominet Trust, and Telefonica (Wayra) investment. Wayra has been incredible in providing support, training and mentorship to help develop us into a proper business and we really wouldn’t be where we are now without the funding from Google, Knight and Nominet Trust.

Finding funding was difficult to begin with. The ideas behind WeFarm, particularly crowd-sourcing of knowledge in the developing world, are innovative and challenging in the NGO/Development sectors, and there isn’t a lot of funding for innovation. Many organisations working in development are very much set-up to do the opposite - give top down instructions and information - and we faced a lot of scepticism that ‘poor people’ could have anything valuable to share with each other for several years.

However, as we started to gain traction and prove the concept behind our ideas more and more people started to get behind us. The last 18 months have been incredible, and we’ve received a huge amount of support, goodwill and encouragement from everyone.

Q: You say you’re using existing technology that these farmers have access to, how exactly does WeFarm work?

A: Farmers register to WeFarm by sending an SMS to the specific in-country short number. To ask a question, a farmer simply needs to send an SMS beginning ‘Q#’ followed by their question. This SMS is processed by our online platform automatically.

An algorithm determines which farmers are most relevant to receive each question (both local and international) and forwards to other farmers by SMS. Farmers can respond with their answers by SMS, which are then sent back to the farmer who asked the question.

Our online platform collects all of the data from SMS and so that we can track trends and map data. For example, we see the potential to map crop disease outbreaks in areas of the world where no one else has live data or insight. This also forms the foundation of our business model, where we supply corporate food and drink businesses with reports that provide unique insight into their supply chain. The smallholder farmers we work with supply 70% of all the food we eat on earth.

We specifically designed and built WeFarm to be easily scaled globally. The API can connect to any SMS messaging infrastructure in most countries around the world within 24 -36 hours.

A majority of people still didn't have internet access, so we ended up building something based on the farmers existing technology.

Kenny Ewan, WeFarm

Q: Incredibly innovation, but like you say this isn’t new technology - why has it taken so long for us to figure out how to apply it to this?

A: Personally, I think the main reasons behind this are attitude rather than technology driven. Peer-to-peer models aren’t really considered in the developing world very often, and I believe that despite crowdsourcing solutions transforming the way people in the West access information, there’s a widespread perception that poor people just need to be told what to do. We’re flipping that model and saying actually, farmers have generations worth of knowledge and solutions to share.

Q: Giving access to that existing knowledge doesn’t work if you don’t have an engaged community. Can you tell us about how you built this network?

A: We piloted and tested WeFarm for a number of years as a project of Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation. There were approximately 280,000 smallholder farmers across Africa and Latin America who were part of the CPF network, so this was a great starting point.

In communities, we run training days with leaders in farming communities, who become WeFarm ‘ambassadors’ and train other farmers how to use the system. In order to reach bigger audiences we partner with radio stations to do shows about WeFarm and invite people to use the systems, and work with partners on the ground, such as NGOs and businesses with farming supply chains.

Q: What do you think the implications of this use of P2P SMS are for the rest of the world?

A: I think the possibilities of using this beyond agriculture are huge. There’s definitely room to provide services like this that focus on other areas like education, politics, health, creativity, entrepreneurship, and more. It’s been very clear in launching WeFarm that people in developing countries have a huge amount of knowledge, and they’re very willing to share their expertise with other people. This could have huge implications for many development projects, by challenging the way that information is delivered, and who is sharing the information.

Q: Quite often technology ostracises different generations from one another, for example in the UK the older generations don’t get everything they could from the internet or wearable tech, WeFarm gives a voice and shares the oral history and knowledge of generations of farmers. Tell us about what you’ve found by doing that.

A: It’s been very inspiring to witness how keen people are to share their knowledge and expertise. We have had more than 100,000 answers supplied through the platform, and people answer more questions that they ask (on average). I think there’s a really great flow of knowledge, and especially from old to young: younger groups are more likely to ask questions, whereas older people are much more likely to answer questions. This shows a fascinating generational transfer of knowledge that’s being facilitated by WeFarm.

We tried to make the service as simple as possible specifically so that we wouldn’t ostracise anyone. The whole philosophy of WeFarm is trying to unlock knowledge, and create more equality in accessing information - especially for often marginalised groups such as women or youth. WeFarm gives people a platform to share their knowledge, and in doing so gives the message to these people that their opinion is valuable - and that’s incredibly powerful.

Q: What’s your favourite case you’ve seen of someone using WeFarm?

A: I think my favourite was one case study we heard about quite early on after our launch of a Kenyan farmer named Jacob asking for advice on how to start a rabbit farm. He received a set of answers back from someone in Peru who had been farming rabbits for 20 years. Jacob implemented the advice and now has a thriving rabbit farm, which I have had the pleasure of seeing in person in Kenya.

Q: What does 2016 hold for WeFarm?

A: Our biggest focus at the moment is the funding round which, we launched in January. We’re raising £2,300,000 in equity investment that will be used to reach 2.9 million farmers using and benefitting from the system in the next two years - the next few months are vital in securing our future and taking WeFarm to the next level. Post-investment we’re planning to launch in India and develop WeFarm 2.0 among many other exciting things.

Photo credits to WeFarm: Camilla Gordon and Kenny Ewan

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