Farmer weighing his produce in Meru County, Kenya, December 1, 2015. TRF/Caroline Wambui
KATHERI, Kenya - Sitting under a cypress tree on his farm to escape the scorching heat, Michael Mwenda is deeply engrossed in his phone.
"I am getting the latest info on diseases attacking French beans," he said. "My neighbours' beans were attacked by a pest and I don't want the same thing to happen to mine."
Farmers in Katheri village in central Kenya - and in many other parts in the country - regularly battle pests that attack their crops, a problem made worse by recurring drought.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on their agricultural products.
However, a mobile app called Farmforce is helping farmers and exporters access information to contain pest outbreaks, track harvests in real time, and monitor pesticide residues to comply with global food standards.
Developed by the Syngenta Foundation and the Swiss government in 2013 in Kenya and other countries in Africa and Asia, the initiative employs field workers who record information about farmers such as their address, land acreage, the crops grown and pesticide records, among other things.
This enables real-time monitoring of products from cultivation to harvesting "as farmers receive progress reports regularly – telling them for example whether or when to spray pesticides", said Gideon Aliero, an agronomist at Interveg Exports, a company that exports fresh fruit and vegetables and has been using the app for four years.
To receive the information on their phones, farmers need to be registered with a food exporter.
LESS PAPER, MORE MONEY
Faith Kamenchu, project manager at Farmforce, said the app allows farmers, food processors and exporters to cut down on cumbersome paperwork.
"Most smallholder farmers use pen and paper methods to record their activities whereas exporting markets demand a range of highly detailed information on the produce," she said.
"Collecting that information by paper is time-consuming, difficult to aggregate and inconsistent, which makes it hard for farmers to meet global standards and export their produce."
A Farmforce field agent is allocated to a group of farmers depending on their location, and advises them based on the information they receive from the app – for example, on when they should harvest their crops.
Kamenchu believes this simplifies export companies' management.
"The app informs field staff when farmers' actions might threaten compliance – like overuse of chemicals – and ensures that the agents actually go in the field, as they have to activate their location on their phone when they report."
Fraud used to be a significant problem among field agents, he added. "They would pretend to be on a farmer's field and send inaccurate information, with no way for the export company to detect any lies. But that is no longer an issue, as field officers need to turn the location mode on to access the app on their phone."
So far, the technology counts about 100,000 users – both farmers and exporters – across the country, Kamenchu said.
However, Gabriel Ayoki, a farming consultant, said the technology's impact may be limited in remote areas where farmers experience frequent power failures and cannot charge their phones to access the app.
Mwenda, who grows maize, tomatoes and beans, says he used to struggle to sell his produce to export companies "as it was of poor quality and often affected by bacterial wilt disease, which I had no information about."
Now that he has been using the app for three years, he manages to harvest more food and of better quality, and makes over 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($484) in one harvesting season (three months), compared to 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($193.61) previously.
"My income is now steady, so I can make plans for the future like pay for my children's education," he said.