Kenyan and Nigerian farmers are trialling a simple and easy-to-use SMS service to exchange agricultural information, giving the majority of farmers, who are locked out from smartphone applications, a platform that has attracted some 500 farmers since its inception three months ago.
Dubbed Next2 and developed by two internet and mobile entrepreneurs, Emeka Okoye and Brian Puckett, the service allows farmers to post information to create a wide source network through which other farmers and interested parties can access information on markets, crop yields and products for sale.
“Setting up and operating a two-way SMS service can be a complex and costly task, but this system provides a simple and efficient method of distributing timely, customised content without the need for special equipment, or expertise, and is available at a fraction of the cost of other SMS shortcode and keyword services,” said Brian Puckett.
An organisation or farmer who wants to publish information by SMS can login on the Next2 website, set up a unique account name, and add keywords and messages that can be sent when someone sends those keywords to the system. A farmer looking for information starts a text message with the word ‘get’ followed by the publisher’s account name and sends the message to the Next2 country phone number: 5557 in Kenya, or 08093500162 in Nigeria.
The farmers only needs to know a Next2 account name to get the information that a particular organisation, or business, makes available, receiving a message of up to 800 characters or five text messages on that topic.
The farmers do not pay for the messages sent to them, only for the messages they send to the system, which cost the same as sending a regular SMS. Businesses and organisations can promote their service by listing their account name with the local Next2 phone number.
When a farmer sends a ‘get’ request, the system also automatically creates an account name for that individual farmer.
The farmer can also register first, by texting ‘reg’ plus an account name and location, e.g. ‘reg Robert Nairobi’. The system then uses the location information to create a ‘sharing circle’ of other users who have logged in within a 10km radius.
Once registered with the service, the farmer can then use one of eight SMS commands to share content with other farmers and content publishers, either in English or a local language, depending on the country. In Kenya, the system works in both English and Swahili.
Typical information includes products for sale, or that they would like to buy, or a topic they would like to discuss, followed by a subject word. Next2 automatically exchanges these messages between farmers in their area. For example, a farmer looking for maize seeds would text ‘want maize seeds, looking for seeds to plant and harvest, good for drought’. Another farmer that has maize seeds can then reply: ‘have maize seeds for neighbour that grew well last year with little input’.
Each farmer in the area gets the other’s message on their cell phone and can use the reply feature to continue the conversation.
Next2 is careful to protect the farmer’s privacy. Users only know a farmer’s Next2 account name and must use that to communicate with them.
The service is now touted to rise in penetration, for although there has been an explosion of smartphones and an array of farming related applications, millions of small scale farmers don't have access to the gadgets and have been forced to make do with the traditional marketing strategies like open market places. “I would, for once, want convenience in marketing my products. It's such a struggle trying to reach customers in the market place, since more traders are flocking the markets.
Marketing myself at my convenience and managing to reach many customers would be a dream come true for me,” said Murimi Ciugu, a fresh produce farmer from Karatina in Central Kenya who has sold his produce in the Karatina market for the last 12 years.
Next2 has also reached out to major agricultural organisations and is working with a number of NGOs to promote the service to more small-scale farmers.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter