A group of Narok farmers has taken to Twitter to market their produce, highlighting the potential of IT solutions in agriculture.
Tired of being fleeced by middlemen who offer them poor prices, the Irish potato farmers have signed up to the social media site where they tweet to engage hotel owners â€” mainly in Nairobi â€” access daily commodity prices, and close deals online.
Through a closed user group aptly named @ViaziNarok; the potato farmers congregate online where they share market intelligence reports and haggle with cafÃ© managers in real time â€” creating a virtual distribution chain that bypasses brokers.
â€œWe are now earning higher returns by directly selling our produce to buyers in Nairobi,â€ said Mrs Mary Rugaita, one of the first Irish potato farmers in Narok County to embrace the application dubbed SokoShambani.
The SMS-based farmer targeted solution rides on the Twitter short code 8988 where farmers and restaurants use text messages to tweet seeking buyers, placing orders, and passing information on demand and supply trends of the commodity.
â€œMost small-scale farmers are ignorant of market trends, hence they are at the mercy of brokers who oft times exploit them,â€ said Mr Stephen Kimiri, a 27-year-old techie behind SokoShambani.
So far, 1,953 potato farmers from Narok and 17 hotels in Nairobi are â€˜â€˜followingâ€™â€™ the mobile-based platform, developed in April, free of charge â€”wirelessly bridging the more than 150 kilometres between them.
A study carried out by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) in 2009 showed that while the national farm gate value of potatoes was Sh10 billion; at the retail level it tripled to Sh30.8 billion.
The huge discrepancy between what farmers earn and the value of their produce at the market level is due to the many players in the potato marketing chain, chiefly middlemen who earn more than farmers.
The privacy settings of the Twitter group have been tweaked to restrict access by members only. A tweet from a farmer seeking buyers or a restaurant in need of potatoes is escalated to all members.
However, subsequent replies and conversations are only between the discussing parties, just like a private chat on social media. The farmers and cafÃ© managers use a mix of English and Kiswahili in listing their produce at the site and bargaining to a close a sale; after which the farmer transports the produce to Nairobi and receives payment on delivery.
With seven out of every 10 Kenyans having access to a mobile phone, the text-based app is both accessible and affordable. â€œMany of the farmers do not know that they are tweeting,â€ Mr Kimiri said. â€œMost of them only know that they should send texts to the short code 8988.â€
Mr John Mwenja, one of the farmers from Kisiriri location, said: â€œThanks to this application, we are aware of prices in Nairobi and the needs of the buyers.â€
To sign up to the SokoShambani platform, farmers are required to follow a four-step procedure where one sends the word START to 8988. The next steps involve sending the farmerâ€™s name, location, and crop variety.
Restaurants use their brand names. â€œWe are now able to directly connect with farmers who sell to us at a better price compared to what the middlemen used to offer us,â€ said Mr Gabriel Kiboro, the manager of Chicken Exotica, a fast-food cafÃ© in Nairobi.
Mr Kimiriâ€™s ultimate dream is to roll out the application to cover all small scale farmers in Kenya and connect them directly to individual consumers and institutions like schools and supermarkets.
The agri-tweeting venture has already caught the eye of American development agency USAID which is providing funding worth Sh4.3 million. The Dutch embassy in Nairobi is also providing technical support in the form of high yielding potato seeds to the farmers to increase yields and quality.
The Irish potato is Kenyaâ€™s second most important food crop behind maize, involving approximately 790,000 farmers who produced 2.4 million tonnes of the tuber last year from about 123,000 hectares of land.
SokoShambani joins the league of the increasing number of agriculture-related mobile apps such as M-Farm. iCow, M-Shamba, and FarmPal which seek to provide interventions such as extension services, market information, and value addition.