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WeFarm #1: Improving quality of life through better access to information

18 November, 2013 - Source: Else

Part one in a series where we expose the workings behind our peer-to-peer knowledge sharing project for Cafédirect Producers Foundation. Expect insights from research and user-testing as well as sharing of early concept development through to the final solution.

  • Improving quality of life through better access to information
    Improving quality of life through better access to information

‘Knowledge is power, information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.’ 

Kofi Annan 

The web has profoundly changed the way we obtain information, creating a wealth of easily accessible knowledge and putting subject experts all over the world within easy reach.

We’ve come to take it for granted that when we have a particular problem or question we want answered, a quick search of Google or Wikipedia can yield a useful answer. Alternatively, we can put our questions to a community of helpers, such as Quora, where a ‘best answer' will emerge as up-voted by the crowd.

Now imagine you are a farmer living in rural Kenya. The chances are you’re not equipped with a device that is able to access the Internet. The nearest Internet cafe may be more than a days travel away, so where the solution comes from is vastly limited.

How can better access to information help improve the quality of life for a farmer in Kenya?

Here’s a basic example: A Kenyan farmer has a problem with soil erosion creating poor growing conditions for his crops.

On the contrary, a farmer in Peru may have come up with an innovative solution to that problem using what is locally available to him/her. The Kenyan farmer could easily implement this too, however without connectivity, the farmer in Peru can only share the solution to other farmers in immediate proximity.

Access to the right information can help improve people’s quality of life, however limited access to information is problem faced by millions of people in the developing world.

Only 10% of farmers have any access to the internet

According to the ITU, the UN’s agency for information technology, only 16% of people in Africa are using the internet. While Cafédirect Producers Foundation’s research puts that figure at less than 10% for farmers they surveyed.

But while the Internet is not widely available in rural communities and smartphone penetration is low, basic mobile phones have become very widespread in the developing world. Mobile penetration stands at 89% here.

This boom in mobile phone ownership offers a real opportunity for service innovation in the developing world, and indeed a number of success stories have already emerged. For example Nigerian e-commerce site Konga allows purchases from website to be made with SMS by texting a product code to a number - triggering a call from a customer service representative offering a range of payment options, including M-Pesa.

M-Pesa (Swahili for money) is a service that leapfrogs traditional banking allowing the paying of bills, money transfers between friends and family and making purchases in shops to be done by SMS. Over half of Kenya’s population uses it.

While MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action) sends timely tips and advice, including potentially live-saving information to pregnant women in Bangladesh, India and South Africa; aiding them through their pregnancies and first year of raising their child. Grameen Foundation offers a similar service called Mobile Midwife for women in Ghana.

Note that South America has seen considerably less than Africa in the way of SMS service innovation. This is probably down to the fact that South American countries are generally more developed. Yet they still contain a large number of marginalised, rural communities who are at a similar level in terms of connectivity and would benefit from such innovations.

Enter WeFarm, a peer-to-peer knowledge sharing platform for smallholder farmers

The UK-registered charity Cafédirect Producers Foundation (CPF) spotted an opportunity to use widely available mobile technology as a way for farmers to share their knowledge and expertise, and started developing WeFarm.

WeFarm has already been piloted with a test group of farmers in Africa and South America, using human translators to translate messages between languages. The service is now ready to be taken to the next level - a fully scaled service that farmers all over the world can use to help them make the most of their land and in turn improve their livelihoods.

Our brief is to develop this platform for the sharing of agricultural expertise, allowing smallholder coffee, tea and cocoa farmers to ask questions to each other via SMS regardless of where in the world they live. SomeOne/Else are responsible for designing the overall user experience, stakeholder engagement and user interfaces of the service. We will be working with technical partners Manifesto and Conker Group.

The challenge in providing farmers with a useful answer

The challenge for us is to design a service that will enable farmers to ask a question by SMS and receive a useful and practical answer. This answer may come from the next village, or it may come from another continent and therefore require translation (on its way out and again on its way back).

With the wild variations of spelling and local idioms, the most effective way to do this is by using human translation. Therefore we will also have to consider how to attract translators to the service. The basic idea is that we build a community of volunteers who get to develop their language skills and benefit others at the same time. But we need to ensure that our volunteer translators are engaged in the impact of what they are doing in for them to stay involved.

Beyond the translation mechanics, there are some interesting design challenges ahead regarding what constitutes a ‘right answer’.

The service may allow farmers to cast the net wide and ask others from another continent, but with that opportunity comes an interesting challenge in latency.

Imagine the scenario... as a tea farmer in Africa I may have a question about soil erosion, so I text it to WeFarm. The question is received by the system, processed and qualified by the service and then sent out to other farmers who can provide an answer wherever they are in the world.

While I can start receiving answers from those who speak my language almost immediately, because of the need for translation it may take a day or more for answers to return answers from South America. Of course the speed of the answer is also impacted by differences in time zone.

So I am able to receive several local answers quickly... but maybe the most useful answer will arrive after a few days.

Also, the expected lead time of answers may differ depending on the nature of the question. For example questions about next years harvest aren’t quite as urgent as ones to do with a pest control issue threatening to wipe out an entire crop.

The difference between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’

The important thing is to design for knowledge. An answer is just information until it is acted upon. Only after it’s been acted upon can it be qualified as being practical. Then if it is any good, it may be considered knowledge.

When people ask questions time and again, an ‘answer pool’ builds up where ‘right answers’ may be validated and endorsed by WeFarm. This build up of knowledge is a success scenario that we are designing for, so that in the future we have a readily available best answer.

Stay tuned...

These are some early thoughts, there is a lot of complex challenges within this seemingly simple experience design challenge. We’ll be sharing how we are doing as we go, including sharing our insights, unveiling user testing of early concepts and generally lifting the lid on the way that SomeOne/Else works. So stay tuned for the next part in the WeFarm blog series.


Cafédirect Producers Foundation (CPF) is a UK registered charity owned and led by smallholder farmers for smallholder farmers. They are currently engaged with 280,000 smallholder tea, coffee and cocoa producers across Africa, Latin America and Asia. Find out more about what they do by visiting their website.

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