How did the idea for Wefarm come about?
Originally developed as a pilot project from within the Cafedirect Producers Foundation – a UK-registered charity that works with smallholder farmers and their organisations across Africa, Latin America and Asia – Wefarm then went on to win the 2014 Google Impact Challenge Award, which effectively launched Wefarm’s independent status. The company has since grown to become a social enterprise backed by venture capital. The Cafedirect Producers Foundation, through Wefarm’s Co-founder Claire Rhodes, maintains a seat on Wefarm’s board to this day.
Wefarm’s CEO, Kenny Ewan, spent many years designing sustainability programmes for isolated rural populations in Latin America, wherein he saw, first-hand, the type of incredible grassroots innovations and ideas these communities created to solve daily problems. Yet, such vital innovations were never shared with others in the region facing similar problems, due to a lack of connectivity.
Wefarm, thus, was launched to bring knowledge-sharing services to small holder farmers to encourage improved agricultural productivity. Once conceptualised, Wefarm developed its service offering, design and information architecture in conjunction with farmers in Peru, Kenya and Tanzania. This collaborative process enabled Wefarm to develop a service that is directly relevant for and resonates with our users.
What is Wefarm?
Wefarm, the world’s largest farmer-to-farmer digital network, is a social enterprise that lets smallholder farmers connect with one another to solve problems, share ideas, and spread innovation. Utilising the latest machine learning technology, Wefarm’s service works both online and over SMS. Knowledge shared on Wefarm can help farmers produce higher quality product, increase yields, gain insight into pricing, tackle the effects of climate change, source the best seeds, fertiliser, and loans, diversify agricultural interests, and more.
Since its founding in 2015, Wefarm has been named one of Africa’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company and has won Google’s Impact Challenge Award, TechCrunch’s Europas Tech for Good Award, and the European Union Commission’s Ideas from Europe prize, among others. The company is headquartered in London with offices in Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam.
What problem is Wefarm solving?
Approximately 500 million small-scale farmers around the world provide over 70% of the world’s food. However, up to 90% have no access to the internet and are often isolated from basic agricultural information and new ideas. Moreover, most of these small-scale farmers live on less than $1 a day. Their income is entirely dependent on the survival of their crops or livestock which makes them highly vulnerable to natural disasters, climate change, pests, disease and volatile markets.
With the world’s population projected to grow from 7 to 9 billion by 2050 and climate change an entrenched reality, increased pressures not only on farmers but also on the global food supply chain will only persist. Farmers and businesses without access to problem-solving technologies and rich information sources are at risk of being left behind.
Wefarm’s network connects farmers to each other, both online and through SMS. With Wefarm, farmers can share and access crucial livestock and crop knowledge and vital pieces of information on how to improve their farm or battle a disease -- without leaving their farm, spending any money, or having any access to the internet. Already, more than 1,000,000 farmers have joined Wefarm – in an industry where less than 0.1 % of mobile apps ever reach even half that number.
Take for example farmer Michael Kirimi from Meru County, Kenya, whose tea was first affected by alumilaria root rot disease, then by hypoxolon wood rot disease and finally by yellowing leaves. He posed questions about each problem on Wefarm and received solutions to all. For alumilaria root rot he was advised to prune two centimetres higher, for hypoxolon wood rot the solution was to remove tree stumps from his farm land in their entirety and for yellowing leaves he was advised to do a soil test, wherein he discovered a nitrogen deficiency. Whereas before using Wefarm, Michael was harvesting roughly 2,000 kgs of tea per month, after Wefarm, he yielded 3,884 kgs of tea monthly.
What is unique about Wefarm, compared to your competitors?
Wefarm’s key innovation is the creation of the world’s first crowdsourced peer-to-peer network for offline communities. We are the first business in the world to have launched an SMS platform that enables farmers to access information from within the farming community itself, so that farmers can increase resilience to climate change, increase crop yield, and improve their livelihoods whether or not they are online.
Our peer-to-peer model fundamentally challenges the prevalence of top- down information models in developing countries that continually promote the belief that poor people just need to be told what to do.
What’s more, while many of our competitors have information services made for specific categories of farmers - Wefarm is for everyone. We serve all smallholder farmers, regardless of their crop(s), livestock, location, language or place in the value chain.
Why is peer to peer a valuable source of knowledge?
Leading researchers in the field of collective intelligence are often concerned with how to harness accurate insights contained in groups. While literature on collective intelligence is vast and varied, researchers working on what are often called “diversity trumps ability” theories offer the best evidence for why Wefarm’s peer-to-peer model of collective intelligence may indeed trump (and at the very least match) the knowledge presented by agricultural experts.
Diversity trumps ability theorists claim that a randomly assembled large group of people with a diverse set of skills in the same domain will outperform the very best people in that same group. Leading researches Lu Hong and Scott Page wrote about this in their seminal paper “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outper-form Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” The farmers on Wefarm’s network are both randomly assembled and possess a diverse range of abilities within the same profession.
Moreover, certain practitioners working with knowledge transfer for smallholder farming communities have highlighted the importance of sharing information in a way that is easy to understand and practical for farmers. Peer generated content tends to be communicated in a way that is easier to be applied than many types of expert advice.
How does Wefarm’s technology work?
How Wefarm’s technology works is simple.
A farmer sends a message, which is then delivered to Wefarm, where it is broken down and analysed through a series of custom built machine learning applications. Through that process, each message is categorized with several tags that define intent, language and content, and which then help direct the system to select the best matched responders.
For instance, Bob asks “what’s the best way to rear rabbits?” Wefarm’ then filters through its database of farmers to locate the most likely farmers to respond at that moment. He could be our best rabbit farmer, or a maize farmer who recently diversified into rabbits and has excellent advice for someone doing the same.
At the data science innovation level, Wefarm’s use of machine learning algorithms has yielded new models that identify three regional African languages – Kiswahili, Luganda, and Runyankore – in addition to English. These models – and others – allow Wefarm to provide relevant responses to questions by identifying knowledgeable users who speak the same language. This means Wefarm’s technology is also at the forefront of breaking down barriers to technological development, since our service does not necessitate English language proficiency, as is the case with many of our competitors.
Does Wefarm use artificial intelligence? How?
Ultimately, as our technology platform becomes increasingly more sophisticated, it is Wefarm's aim to use modern Artificial Intelligence techniques to help farmers share their own human intelligence.
Currently, our system relies on machine learning – specifically Natural Language Processing (NLP) – to determine the language, content, and intent of incoming messages. We then use custom algorithms to identify users most likely to respond to a given question.
What’s the benefit of international knowledge sharing? Wouldn’t it be easier to just have it in local areas?
Wefarm caters for both. The system immediately sends each question to a number of people within a few miles’ radius in order to receive local, timely information back. However, it also sends questions to smaller numbers of people in the region, and internationally (after the question is translated) in order to facilitate new ideas and information.
The reality is that some questions are best answered locally, and for others value is added by sourcing international knowledge. The machine learning aspects of our technology mean that over time, Wefarm learns to recognise which is which.
Increasingly in farming there is genuine value in international advice, particularly as climate change is so strongly affecting smallholder farmers in developing countries. A good example of this is in crop pests and diseases, which are becoming prevalent in areas where they have never been see before. Who better to support the Ugandan coffee farmer facing a plague for the first time than the Peruvian coffee farmer who has been dealing with for years?
What is Wefarm’s business model?
As a mission-driven business, Wefarm is a for-profit company that strives to make
money in a socially responsible way. We are funded through a combination of venture capital, angel investment, grant funding and prize earnings. All of our decisions are made with the farmer’s best interest in mind. We use technology to empower the smallholder farmer’s voice within global agriculture.
What can Wefarm’s data provide?
According a recent study by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, embedding sustainable business practices in the global food and agriculture industry alone could deliver an annual $2.3 trillion windfall. Wefarm seeks to contribute to this saving by offering clearer visibility into the workings of the world’s supply chain.
Small-scale farmers grow up to 70% of all the food we eat on earth, and yet the multinationals that source from them often have no data at all from the bottom of the supply chain. The millions of organic, user driven pieces of content flowing through Wefarm enable us to deliver unique and highly actionable data from the world’s supply chain, in real time.
Wefarm’s data models will be able to track and predict keys issues, such as disease, ripening periods, shortages, drought, soil conditions, farm characteristics and many other vital supply chain issues. With this data, businesses, NGOs, governments and research institutions can improve supply chain management and security, evaluate key trends and challenges and increase sustainability and transparency. For instance, if there is a specific crop disease spreading through a region, Wefarm can track the disease and work with food and drink companies to help prevent it from ruining an entire harvest. Many corporate food businesses have the knowledge on how to prevent certain crop diseases, but if they don’t have an awareness of the disease spreading through local farms, they cannot do anything to stop it.
Even at this early stage, Wefarm has already generated revenue with several commercial contracts, including a high-street food and drink company and a multinational FMCG company.
Who is liable for the quality of information and for the security of information?
Wefarm is a peer-to-peer network. As such, our farmers understand that the content they receive and provide is all peer generated. While other platforms rely on external “experts” who may or may not be farmers themselves, all of Wefarm’s content is reflective of generations worth of knowledge, insights, ingenuity and daily practice.
If any content is flagged as inappropriate, offensive, dangerous, political or unsafe, Wefarm has two levels of security in place to stop such content before it is distributed throughout the system. First, we employ a blocked word list and spam filters, then we manually monitor our network and block users who produce such content.
In terms of data security, as a UK- headquartered company, our network and the data contained within it are all fully compliant with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations. We do not have access to any personal data or data other than what our farmers explicitly provide us with. All data is furthermore aggregated and anonymized in accordance with data privacy laws and best practices in each country where we operate, including with the GDPR.
How does Wefarm view genetically modified organisms (GMO)? What are the general feelings about GMO among your users?
Genetic modification is not a high conversation topic on our network. Our most discussed issues focus on livestock disease, pests, climate change and weather conditions and the search for best practices while using inputs. We honestly have more questions relating to the genetic makeup of livestock (inherited traits) rather than GMO.
This said, Wefarm’s staff do not decide what topics get discussed on the platform. All of our content is user-driven. The farmers decide topics most relevant to them and advise each other in accordance with their on-ground realities, preferences and insights.
How do different climates effect the types of solutions that work for farmers? Is a solution for a tea farmer in Kenya the same solution that a Ugandan tea farmer needs?
We share questions where most appropriate, depending on the topic and individual. Some Qs need to be answered with a few miles, others from anywhere. We actually often see the benefits of sharing questions across countries - e.g. when a new crop disease is happening in an area, there is no one better to provide support than farmers who have dealt with it for years.
How is Wefarm funded? Who are WF’s investors?
Wefarm is backed by a combination of venture capital, grant funding, prize earnings and angel investment.
In March 2018, Wefarm secured over GBP 3.5 million in seed extension funding to continue building our network as well as to focus on developing and deploying our commercial products and new features. Our lead investor for this round was leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm, True Ventures. Other investors who joined this round include: Skype and Atomico Founder Niklas Zennström (angel investing in a personal capacity), WordPress Founder Matt Mullenweg, Blue Bottle Coffee CEO Bryan Meehan, and the Norrsken Foundation. LocalGlobe and Accelerated Digital Ventures (ADV), our initial backers, also contributed follow on investment in this round.
In November 2015, Wefarm secured GBP 1.4 million in seed funding. The round is led by LocalGlobe, a UK-based venture capital firm focused on seed investing, whose other investments include Citymapper, Lovefilm, Moo, TweetDeck, TransferWise and Zoopla. Accelerated Digital Ventures (ADV) is our second investor. ADV, also based in the UK, is a venture platform that funds all stages of the digital technology business lifecycle – from entry to exit.
Investment will help to continue bringing the benefits of Wefarm to thousands of new farmers each day.
Does Wefarm offer rewards in any way?
Right now, Wefarm has two ways of offering rewards, our Champion Farmer programme and our Brand Ambassador programme.
Wefarm’s Champion farmer programme selects one farmer per month, in
each country where we operate, to be honoured and celebrated as our “Champion Farmer”. To be selected as a Champion Farmer a farmer
must have used our ASK ME SMS command to successfully ask and answer the
highest number of questions each month. After joining Wefarm, farmers
simply SMS “ASK ME” followed by a topic of their choice in order to request
questions on specific topics. Those with the most questions asked and answers given become our champion farmers. Champion Farmers provide
immense value to the entire Wefarm community — showcasing their knowledge to help other farmers reach new heights of success. Programme rewards include anything from a Wefarm gift basket to free publicity on national radio and in prestigious publications.
Brand Ambassadors at Wefarm work to showcase the strengths of Wefarm’s network to farmers across Kenya and Uganda. They are bright, motivated and enthusiastic agriculturalists who understand what Wefarm is and can aptly show farmers how to use it. Some of our brand ambassadors are youth seeking a first-time experience in agriculture while others are experienced farmers themselves. Our Brand Ambassadors are rewarded for their work with Wefarm in various ways. To find out more or to apply to become a Wefarm Brand Ambassador please contact Dunstan@wefarm.org in Kenya or Justus@wefarm.org in Uganda.
Is Wefarm free for farmers? Why?
Wefarm is absolutely free for our farmers to use – from sign-up to forever. We decided early in our founding to absorb the cost burden of SMS as part of our social mission to make our network accessible to all farmers – no matter how big or small. Wefarm is currently funded by a mixture of venture capital, angel investment, prize earnings and grants.