Up close and personal with Farm.ink founders, transforming how African farmers receive information
Farm.ink is a tech start-up founded by Georgia Barrie and Adam Wills, with a mission to create a more transparent and cooperative agricultural sector. In 2017, Farm.ink won the Big Data Inspire Challenge and in 2018, they were runners up in the Inspire Challenge Scale-up prize.
Farm.ink is a tech start-up with a mission to create a more transparent and cooperative agricultural sector. In 2017, Farm.ink won the Big Data Inspire Challenge and since then they have built an active online community of over 120,000 farmers and used machine-learning classifiers to turn their unstructured social feed into actionable insights. They combined these insights with content and data from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to deliver tailored information back to livestock farmers through a mobile chatbot service.
In 2018, Farm.ink were runners up in Big Data’s Inspire Challenge Scale-up prize. The prize funding is going towards building a web platform that enables farmers, across multiple value chains, to share advice and access expert agronomic content. They are building on their successful pilot with livestock farmers to expand and include maize (with a focus on the recent outbreak of Fall Armyworm) as well as common horticulture crops such as tomato.
Two of the co-founders Georgia Barrie and and Adam Wills recently shared with us their incredible journey, and what 2019 holds in store for them.
What was the inspiration behind Farm.ink?
Prior to Farm.ink we worked at GSMA’s Mobile for Development department. While there we worked with professionals from mobile operators and tech startups whose aims were to build on the rapid spread of mobile connectivity in the Global South to further development goals.
At the time, most of our work used basic phone technologies such as SMS and USSD to deliver information and financial services. Then low-cost smartphones hit the mass market in Africa and Asia, and customers were able to buy new smartphones for as little as US$30-40. Both of us were excited by the possibility for smartphone technology to help address fundamental challenges in these markets, particularly in agriculture. Agriculture is the backbone of most developing economies and in a country like Kenya, most people are involved in farming in some capacity.
To gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by farmers, we worked part-time then visited farms across East Africa. We were impressed at the extent to which farmers used social media to find and share information about farming techniques and to access local buyers. We decided the best way to deliver new mobile services would be to build on this existing behaviour and take a farmer-led approach. Since then we’ve been working in partnership with farming communities in Kenya to build mobile services that enable farmers to help and learn from each other.
What are your main achievements so far?
Most of the early days of Farm.ink were spent rapidly prototyping new solutions and testing them out with small groups of farmers. We worked hand-in-hand with expert farmers in their communities. Noah Nasiali joined the Farm.ink team early on in 2016. The Farm.ink team came up with a sub-brand ‘Africa Farmers Club’ in 2017, which included the effort to setup a Facebook group which has over 120,000 members across 17 African countries. Farmers use this group to ask questions, share advice and experiences. All this work was enabled by both DFID and CGIAR support early on, both saw the early potential in the team’s approach and without their support we wouldn’t be where we are today.
The success of the Africa Farmers Club group led us to build the Africa Farmers Club chatbot. Through the chatbot farmers can search over 300,000 farmer-generated questions and answers and get timely, actionable notifications delivered to their phones. During this time we partnered with ILRI to create a chatbot notification service for dairy farmers to deliver weekly information on animal health issues, local milk prices and local cows for sale. At last count over 30,000 farmers have subscribed to this service and 92% report having changed the way they farm based on information received.
Last year Farm.ink won the Fall Armyworm tech prize for our prototype Fall Armyworm chatbot service. This service trains farmers in how to identify and scout the Fall Armyworm, a pest that is currently devastating maize crops across sub-Saharan Africa.
What have been some of your challenges and opportunities?
We take a rapid prototyping approach to building tech products. This means coming up with an idea, building a prototype, going out to test it with real people and then inevitably finding all kinds of things wrong with it. The biggest challenge is having the patience and stamina to return to the drawing board and start all over again. You can never get too attached to anything you design, and you can’t take criticism too personally.
What is your vision for Farm.ink?
We have big plans for 2019. We are currently working with IDEO.org to design a web platform, which will vastly expand the services and information we’re able to deliver to farmers. One of the big opportunity areas is to create a better link between farmers and the incredible body of agronomic & technical knowledge across the wide range of organisations under CGIAR. Farmers can really benefit from access to this knowledge, and we are in a privileged position to work on this problem. We’ve also been inspired by the open data approach of the CGIAR so we’ll be working on an API that can share relevant insights from the platform directly with the research community.
The new platform will build on the success of the first phase of the Inspire Challenge to expand to multiple value chains including maize and common horticulture crops. We’re also very excited to include resources and expertise from the Fall Army Worm tech prize which will greatly augment the work we’re doing. All this will also allow us to expand our reach considerably, our goal is to reach around a million farmers by 2020.
What gets you up in the morning?
We’re a small team that builds all the tech in-house, this keeps us busy but gives us a unique ability to design what our users demand. It never gets dull. The most enjoyable part is designing new features and testing them with real people. While negative feedback can be hard to hear it’s necessary and makes it even more rewarding when you get it right.
The work of Farm.ink together with ILRI was conducted as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock, which is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund. CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food-secure future. Its science is carried out by 15 Research Centers in close collaboration with hundreds of partners across the globe. www.cgiar.org
February 7, 2019
Q&A with Georgia Barrie and Adam Wills
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