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Africa Wired

Africa Renewal

Livestock tracking in Africa goes high tech

By Pavithra Rao

In an era of lightning speed, ever-present wireless connectivity, high tech is now also being used to benefit livestock farmers in rural areas of Africa. Widely known for being used to track wild animals, GPS, or “Global Positioning System”tracking devices are being adapted by some small- and large-scale farmers to manage their livestock, notably in Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa.

Tracking an animal is accomplished through either the bolus technique, in which an animal is made to swallow a tracking “tablet”, or through a microchip implantation or an ear-tagging technique. Once fitted with a device, GPS technology can precisely pinpoint an animal’s location and alert farmers whenever the livestock goes missing or is stolen.

In addition, the technology is being fine-tuned to give farmers the ability to control outbreaks of diseases. Explaining how the GPS system works on animals, Ebby Nanzala of the New Agriculturalist, an online magazine that focuses on tropical agriculture, says, “Through their unique numbers on the tag, they [farmers] are able to maintain the data. If there is a disease outbreak, it will be easier for it to be tracked and controlled.”

Mr. Nanzala adds that though the costs for such technology are high, the cost of losing animals to theft and disease is clearly higher. While allaying fears of the high cost of technology, he notes that with government support,“the [GPS tracking] chips will be very cheap and could be used and re-used for over 30 years”.

Similarly, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has created a GPS-based mobile phone application that will inform farmers of their animals’ vaccination schedules, veterinary treatments as well as disease outbreaks.  

New technology helps small farmers attract “big”business

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Small-scale farmers in Kenya can now store and manage data on the pesticide content in their crops before exporting them, thanks to a cloud-based mobile platform that keeps track of pesticide residues in produce. Farmforce software, an initiative of the Swiss-based Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, will phase out time-consuming manual farm record-keeping and replace it with an online version that can be accessed by farmers freely via a mobile phone, according to Business Daily Africa of Kenya.

The Syngenta Foundation, backed by the Swiss government, developed the $2 million platform in 2011 with the help of a team based in Switzerland and a support team in Kenya.

Furthermore, the technology is not restricted to horticulture it can be used for all types of crops.

Already countries such as Ghana, Guatemala, Indonesia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have expressed interest in the service. It’s particularly useful where quality standards and traceability requirements for formal markets are an issue.

With 5 million farmers, including small subsistence growers and large industrial agriculturalists, Kenya has been a hotbed of technological innovations for the agrarian community, according to the 2011 World Bank’s e-sourcebook ICT in Agriculture.

Uganda is also using a cloud-based mobile platform to combine agricultural information and financial services designed for smallholder farmers, reports the Christian Science Monitor. For example, farmers can order and pay for seeds and fertilizers with their mobile phones, and also collect payment for their produce using the same service. 

How mobile technology is changing farming in Africa

By Nirit Ben-Ari

Are you spending all your time texting your friends at home and abroad? African farmers are busy texting too. But instead of exchanging thåe latest tidbits on the private lives of celebrities, they are using their mobile phones to share information on the chances for rain or the prices of produce in nearby markets, or to track the fertility of their farm animals.

Mobile technology is simple and user-friendly, and most importantly, it’s becoming more affordable. It helps rural, small-scale farmers improve the quality of their crops, protect themselves from avoidable crop and money losses from over- or under-farming, and insure against a rainy day—quite literally.

The electronic market

Since mobile-based market information systems were introduced, more phone farming patents have been filed across Africa as a result of the proliferation of mobile services and fall in data costs.

Take the SMS software programme e-Soko (meaning“e-market” in Swahili), for example. This programme makes it easy for farmers to receive updates on market prices, both wholesale and retail, for their crops. This allows farmers to bring their crops to the market on time, eliminate middlemen and place new orders.

According to Citi 97.3, an Accra-based radio station in Ghana, without price information received through text messages from extension officers, farmers are often unaware of the prevailing selling prices, and hence can lose opportunities or money. “Sometimes middle-men or -women dictate their own prices to the farmers. The farmers usually accept the meager offers, which are below the cost of production, leaving them poorer.”

This is where e-Soko comes in. According to reports, this is how it works: representatives from e-Soko visit 50 markets nationwide daily to collect the updated prices of foods. They report the information to e-Soko centres, which compress the information into short text messages that are then sent to all farmers who subscribe to the service. Additional information delivered through the same service includes weather patterns and reminders for ploughing and sowing the land, applying fertilizer, checking weeds and harvesting.

Insurance for a kilogramme of maize

People in rural areas, who have been self-sustaining farmers for generations, are often unaware of the importance of insurance to secure their livelihood. Moreover, they cannot afford conventional insurance. According to the South Africa–based online publication How We Made It In Africa, a Kenyan company has come up with a simple solution. It has launched a product called Kilimo Salama (“safe agriculture” in Swahili) that protects smallholder farmers against adverse weather conditions such as floods or drought.

Kilimo Salama allows farmers to get insurance for as little as one kilogramme of maize, seed or fertilizer. To be covered under the scheme, says the online publication, a farmer need only pay a small amount on top of the price of a bag of seed, fertilizer or other input. In the event of extreme weather conditions, the insurance company, UAP Insurance Group, covers the inputs for which the farmer paid a premium. Payment for the insurance is made at the time of purchase of the inputs, by a broker using a camera phone with a special bar code reader. All money transfers are made through M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer and micro-financing service.

Another useful innovation is the CocoaLink programme, which the American chocolate corporation, the Hershey Company, has introduced in West Africa, where 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown. Yet again farmers are using mobile phones, so far in Ghana only, to disseminate information on farming topics such as farm safety, health, crop disease prevention, post-harvest production and crop marketing, according to the company.

By the end of 2013, more than 3,700 farmers had subscribed to the CocoaLink service, out of which 95% were cocoa farmers in 15 farming communities in Ghana’s western region. About 100,000 messages have already been sent through CocoaLink. Of the farmers registered with CocoaLink, 40% have attended training courses managed by the World Cocoa Foundation, an organization of companies with interests in the chocolate industry that seeks to promote sustainable cocoa economies.


Another phone farming innovation has come from Kenya, where farmers can now follow their cows’ individual fertility cycles using the meaty mobile application iCow. The application tracks each cow or heifer and generates a comprehensive, customized fertility calendar for each animal.

The application is also used to assist farmers to maximize milk production. According to Green Dreams, the first certified organic farm in Kenya, which developed iCow, more than 1.6 million dairy farmers in Kenya, the majority of whom are smallholder farmers, use rudimentary methods to manage their cows’ oestrus cycles and milk production. As a result, these farmers are able to sell an average of only 3 to 5 litres of milk per day, while calculations show that 15 litres per day is the minimum required to bring a family over the poverty line.
Other services iCow performs include keeping track of feeding showing local veterinary contact information and market prices of cattle generating a calf calendar to ensure calves are reared following best practices and are thus able to reach optimum genetic potential providing a customizable immunization calendar and providing health, diet, nutrition, illness and disease information services.

But what is the future of phone farming? While these simple technologies are transforming small-scale agriculture in rural Africa, “the ‘know-how’ and ‘how-to’ of African agriculture cannot be reduced to SMS messaging or accessed only through mobile phones,” points out the Future Agriculture Consortium, an Africa-based alliance of research organizations seeking to provide information and advice to improve agricultural policy and practice in Africa. “The real challenge is to harness the power of mobile communication technology” in order to move to the next level: fully advanced high-tech African agriculture. 

2012 ICT Index Africa map