Growing a business that helps small farmers in Africa

24 Jun 2016212 Shares

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M-Farm CEO Jamila Abass has built an online platform and marketplace to boost smallholder farming in Kenya. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

As a farmer, you need to make a profit on selling your crops to survive in business – but what if those profits are eroded through a long supply chain to the trader, or if the market conditions change?

Software engineer and social entrepreneur Jamila Abass has come up with an ingenious solution for smallholder or subsistence farmers in Kenya to help overcome these problems and build their businesses: she co-founded M-Farm, an online platform where farmers can connect with buyers and get information about how to plan, manage and sell their crops.

“It is a commodity exchange platform that connects farmers to each other and connects them to buyers directly,” explained Abass, who will speak at Inspirefest 2016 in Dublin next week. “I would say it is the Amazon for agricultural produce in Africa.”

The power of connection

Abass co-founded the initiative because she could see the need for smallholder farmers to have access to markets and information. “Agriculture is the backbone of all developing countries, and, in Kenya, it contributes about 25-30pc of the GDP every year,” she explained. “We have a lot of smallholder farmers who are looking to connect to the formal market and they are not able to do that because there are no technology facilities that can enable them. That is why we set it up.”

As well as providing a conduit to trade agricultural produce, M-Farm provides business intelligence services, including a decision-making tool that helps farmers to plant and trade their crops at optimal times. “We are able to tell the farmers ‘the prices might be going down so you might want to sell off today’,” she explained.

To help farmers manage their business and crops, M-Farm also publishes articles and provides an online space for farmers and experts to seek and offer advice.

“We have a community of veteran and new farmers and experts together, and they are able to chat and ask questions and exchange knowledge,” said Abass. “Basically, it is a social network for the farmers, but very agriculturally driven.”

The platform has around 22,000 users, according to Abass, who has heard from some of them about the impact M-Farm has had on their farming practices and outputs. “Some write to us and say thank you,” she said. “Recently, someone said they used the advice we gave in one of the articles. They tried what we said and now they have expanded their acreage to six times the size.”

Entrepreneurial flair

As a child in north-eastern Kenya, Abass showed an early entrepreneurial flair. She and her brother grew coriander and kale and sold them to neighbours. She went on to study computer science in Morocco and she is now an Ashoka Fellow, which allows her to plough more into M-Farm. “Ashoka is an organisation that invests in social entrepreneurs so that they focus on the projects or the companies that they are building,” she explained. “They have invested in me so I don’t have to do side jobs, I can entirely focus on creating a platform that will support smallholder farmers.”

Precision farming

One of the next steps for M-Farm will be precision agriculture, linking in with data sources, such as information from satellites, to tailor the suggestions and advice even further for farmers. “We are exploring the possibility of including that to make the advice and guidance we are giving to the farmers more specific,” explained Abass.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book your tickets now to join us from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.