MERU, Kenya (AlertNet) - William Muriuki and his wife are inspecting their vegetable farm in the tiny village of Karimagachiije, some 15 km outside Meru town in central Kenya. Cabbages, onions and Irish potatoes are ready to go to market. But the question is where?
Identifying the best market never used to be a problem, explains the 73-year-old farmer. “It was easy to tell what vegetables were in season in a particular area, so we knew the most appropriate places to sell our farm produce.”
But changing climatic conditions have disrupted market patterns. “It is no longer as predictable as it was,” he says. “We have to physically identify places with high demand.”
Even fairly recently, local farmers could be sure the rains would come around March 25 each year. So by the end of April, most vegetables would be in season, meaning low demand at nearby markets. In much of Eastern Province though, the rains would be delayed or not arrive at all, so farmers from the central region knew they could get a good price for their produce there.
But that’s no longer the case. “In the past few years, I have seen rains come much earlier than expected, or very late,” says Muriuki. “At times, it rains in Eastern Province much earlier or at the same time as it does here, or it fails to rain in both areas.”
In these challenging conditions, Muriuki and his farming colleagues have turned to technology to help them find the right market.
PRICES BY TEXT MESSAGE
Standing on his farm, Muriuki pulls a mobile phone from his pocket to compose a text message. He writes the word ‘price’, followed by ‘cabbage’, then the place name ‘Embu’, and sends it to 3535. Almost immediately, he receives a reply stating: “Cabbage Ext Bag 126kg selling at Ksh400 in Embu as of 2011-04-01.”
This tells him that a standard bag of cabbage, weighing about 126 kilos, has been selling for 400 Kenyan shillings ($5) in Embu town for the past week.
Muriuki composes a similar message, substituting ‘Nairobi’ for Embu. The response tells him the same quantity of cabbage is selling at 2,100 shillings ($26.26) in the Kenyan capital - more than five times the price in Embu.
“Now all I need to do is to calculate the cost of transportation to Nairobi, and the cost of transportation to Embu, and differentiate in order to identify the market that is likely to give me more profit,” says Muriuki. Sending each text message costs 10 shillings (around 12 US cents).
“Identification of the appropriate market for our farm produce has been the biggest challenge in the recent past,” explains the farmer. “But now, technology is slowly and surely liberating us.”
The retired couple have been growing cabbage, tomatoes, Irish potatoes, bananas, onions and other vegetables for the past 10 years, sometimes using greenhouse technology to cope with the shifting climate.
The up-to-date market information they can now access from the mobile phone service is invaluable in helping them stay abreast of weather-related price fluctuations.
The system they use, M-Farm, is a mobile phone application created by three female students at Nairobi’s Strathmore University.
It provides a non-subscription service offering farmers real-time information about market prices across the country via their cell phones. It has been adopted by thousands of Kenyan farmers to identify the best markets for their produce.
The M-Farm team has turned the service into a fully fledged business with at least two agents positioned in each of Kenya’s five major agricultural cities: Nairobi, Eldoret, Mombasa, Kisumu and Kital.
They are tasked with feeding accurate market information into the M-Farm database on a weekly basis. In smaller towns, the job is done by selected farmers.
“Our ultimate target is to have farmers all over the country using this service, so that they can get real-time price information without involving brokers,” says developer Jamilla Abass.
Under normal circumstances, brokers procure agricultural produce in regions where demand - and prices - are low, and sell it on where they are high, enjoying profits at the expense of farmers.
While phone-based pricing technologies like M-Farm have been growing in popularity in the past few years, providers are now looking to offer additional services.
M-Farm has been trying out two other modules that help farmers club together when buying or selling, in order to get better prices and tap new, higher-volume markets.
These applications are being tested in Kinangop in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, where farmers subscribe to the M-Farm system to access information about inputs such as fertiliser, for example.
M-Farm identifies the companies supplying a particular product, and sends out text messages about their offering to subscribers. If farmers want to buy, they express their interest via a page on the M-Farm website or by sending a text message, stating the input they need, the quantity and their location.
The M-Farm team then aggregates the orders in its system, allowing them to bargain for a better price because they buy in bulk before the product is distributed among the farmers.
Similarly, a sellers’ forum enables small farmers to register what they have for sale, giving them access to exporters and large-scale retailers, which can procure the greater volumes they require from a range of suppliers in the system.
Abass says M-Farm hopes to roll out these new services to other parts of the country by the end of the year.
Isaiah Esipisu is a science writer based in Nairobi.