Do a few SMS make me a better farmer?
iCow sends 160 character long text messages to mobile phones in Kenya to convey knowledge to smallholder farmers. This knowledge includes suggestions and up-to-date information about various topics that range from cattle breeding to farming. As a result, for just a few Kenyan Shilling per SMS, smallholder farmers can massively increase their earnings from milk or grain production and benefit from new perspectives for their daily work.
As an active investor, elea supports iCow in the decisive development phase from a start-up company to a comprehensive and economically successful learning platform for smallholder farmers in Africa.
Virginia’s valuable notes
Virginia is sitting in front of the stall where she keeps her cows and is carefully studying an SMS. The message is from iCow, an educational offering via SMS for smallholder farmers in East Africa. It contains important advice about the optimal feeding of one of Virginia’s two cows, which is currently pregnant, and should thus help her to strengthen her farm by ensuring that the soon-to-be-born calf is healthy and that the mother (a dairy cow) continues to be productive. Given that Virginia’s simple mobile phone only allows her to save a few messages, she notes down the important content of each iCow message in her notebook, so that she can consult this information later on. She keeps a whole collection of these notebooks filled with iCow content on a small shelf. Prior to iCow, she says that she primarily managed her farm intuitively – often without much success. She has also not been trained for the work that she does. The state-sponsored and private educational institutions are either too far away or hardly affordable for smallholder farmers like Virginia. Furthermore, she would have to leave her family, animals, and land for several days in order to participate in these trainings. For these reasons, in the past, Virginia and her neighbors had little chance to learn about promising agricultural practices.
A worthwhile investment for only a few Kenyan Shillings
By using iCow, this and many other things have changed on Virginia’s farm and that of her neighbors. Since Virginia registered her two cows on the iCow learning platform, she has been receiving regular tips and tricks on how to properly handle her animals for only a few Kenyan Shillings. Virginia is pleased about her subscription to iCow. Thanks to the consistent application of acquired knowledge regarding nutrition and hygiene, she has been able to more than double the milk production of her two cows and currently sells many times more milk than she did a few months ago. She also looks forward to offspring that will slowly increase the size of her small herd. With the additional money that Virginia earns as a result, she bought a pig and is already saving to buy more animals for her farm. Virginia is motivated and continues to learn with every SMS that she receives from iCow. Via the many small investments that she makes in ever new iCow text messages, she is continually improving her economic livelihood.
Low revenues and limited resources
Smallholder farmers like Virginia account for a majority of the Kenyan population. A typical farmer who earns something from selling milk has one to three cows. Most Kenyans farmers have a small or even very small farm. 71% of them have less than 3 hectares of land, and even 37% have less than one hectare. Many of these farmers have a hard time to produce just enough milk to make ends meet. Due to insufficient infrastructure or either extremely unattractive or altogether unavailable financing options, technical equipment that could increase the productivity of their activities is hard to obtain. For this reason, efficient use of the few available resources that they have is all the more important for farmers.
Training in 160 characters
iCow is an innovative educational offering that supplies smallholder farmers with learning content via SMS. In this way, knowledge about ways to increase efficiency is easily accessible almost anywhere in Kenya, given that practically every smallholder farmer in Kenya owns his/her own mobile telephone. One of the best known products of iCow is called "Mashauri” (which means “advisor”) and targets the more than 7 million smallholder farmers in Kenya. For example, via the iCow platform, dairy farmers learn how much and with which ingredients they should feed their cows in order to ensure their optimal growth. They also learn via SMS when and how to alter the feed for their animals according to their age. In addition, the farmers learn about which hygienic measures and vaccinations offer protection against diseases and how they can contact a veterinarian nearby. iCow also offers courses that either focus on the optimal maintenance of other animals such as goats, chickens, and pigs or on the efficient cultivation of various types of grain. Another iCow product called “Kalenda” supports farmers with valuable tips while they are breeding their cows.
A charismatic entrepreneur
The dynamic Kenyan Su Kahumbu is the entrepreneur behind iCow. Her goal is to one day train millions of farmers through the use of communications technology. For this reason, she founded the company “Green Dreams TECH” in 2010. She has been passionately involved in organic farming for twenty years and has accumulated an enormous wealth of knowledge. With her charisma and enthusiasm, Su began to pass on her knowledge in the form of trainings to smallholder farmers in her region years ago. In doing so, she very quickly discovered that progress could be achieved in the production activities of the participants if they only had access to better knowledge from practitioners and the world of science. It did not take her long to figure out that her dream could be most quickly realized through the use of SMS as the basic technology, particularly in Kenya where mobile telephones have become a key business tool for many people. Even smallholder farmers are using them to transfer money. Consequently, the vision of a platform that is accessible to all smallholder farmers in Africa was born.
elea und iCow: from potential to impact
The objective of the partnership between iCow and elea, the first external investor, is as follows: to transform a start-up that has exceptional potential and at least as many extraordinary challenges into an economically self-supporting company that creates outstanding social impact. At the beginning of the cooperation between iCow and elea, iCow had a visionary entrepreneur with expert knowledge, a small and highly motivated team, as well as an award for the best app idea in Africa – the first text messages had also already been sent. It was obvious that an organizational and technical quantum leap would be necessary in order for iCow to build up a large customer base and be able to operate profitably in the long-term. At that time, no one could say if the smallholder farmers involved in subsistence agriculture would subscribe to the SMS training platform of iCow by the thousands. After all, they are a target group that almost nowhere else in the world can be directly reached with modern communication technology. As an active investor with a seat on the board of directors of iCow, elea supports iCow step-by-step with the development of their strategy, business model, and organization. For example, iCow was able to secure Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile provider, as a strategic partner. Thanks to the expertise and extraordinary commitment of various teams at Accenture Switzerland, one of elea’s philanthropic investors, iCow succeeded in overcoming one of its largest challenges: a highly efficient IT platform of the newest generation makes it possible for iCow today to already reach tens of thousands of customers with their educational offering via SMS. The basis for exponential growth has been laid.
Why is the daily exchange with customers important?
iCow would like to achieve great things: in the years ahead, the iCow platform should become the central partner for thousands upon thousands of smallholder farmers in East Africa and thereby close the knowledge gap. In doing so, these small dairy and grain farmers will be able to sustainably improve their living conditions by means of the higher income that they can generate by using this knowledge. In order for this to occur, however, each text message that iCow sends out must have an evident added value for the iCow user. That’s why Su and her team are continuously working on the expansion and further development of their educational offering. In order to win new customers and integrate currently active ones, iCow is counting on a strong local presence, among other things. For this reason, iCow has initiated an iCow Award as well as an iCow Ambassador Program. Particularly successful farmers are honored, or more specifically chosen as ambassadors to serve in remote regions as “brand ambassadors” for iCow. In addition, iCow is working with Safaricom on a major marketing initiative, which should increase awareness about the iCow offering throughout Kenya. iCow would also like to grow internationally and has already initiated an initial wave of expansion beyond national borders with Tanzania and Ethiopia.