Kenyan agriculture platform supports smallholder farmers
By Julius Omondi, Kenya
An innovative social enterprise firm empowering smallholder farmers in the country has developed a mobile messaging application in a bid to stem the rising pressure on the few extension and field officers who link up with farmers in rural areas, a move that has not only helped to cut the logistical costs by half but also ensured transparency and bonding with the clients.
Dubbed Echo-Mobile, the web based application an initiative from Juhudi Kilimo has seen the social enterprise organization win the hearts of most their smallholder farmers and earn it a prestigious international recognition, CIO award. The CIO 100 awards recognize companies that have cleverly leverage on technology to improve their efficiency and business operations. The web application that has enhanced communication and interaction with clients earned the firm recognition at the 2013 CIO awards in USA making it the only one from the African continent to feature alongside giant and renowned brands like Boeing and FedEx Corp among others.
Having set out to provide tailormade financial services to smallholder farmers who are mostly ignored by the mainstream financial institutions because of being considered high risk clients, Juhudi Kilimo decided to find out the best way to interact with the clients on the ground. “Before the invention of Echo-Mobile was spending a lot of time and resources to reach most of our clients and potential clients most whom come from interior rural areas of the country. Our resources were overstretched and we were taking long to communicate and have feedbacks from the field which was impacting on us negatively,” explained Walela Elvin, a marketing assistant from Juhudi Kilimo.
The IT based application has also increased efficiency of disbursing the loans and client relations. Walela noted that their field officers have been equipped with Samsung tablets and developed a farmer leads management system that they can log into to get background information on a farmer which is keyed in when they inquire from them about the services available. “The model has also helped on client follow up and the rate of conversion of clients reached out by the officers has doubled within a short period.” Highly innovative is the model that it has increased the speed of executing laon application in the field. “Our field officers can key in a client’s details and requests which will reflect in the head office directly and the electronic details perused by the staff in the office for approval immediately a fact that shows how fast one can get the loan,” explained Walela.
The application also has a hotline messaging platform enabling farmers to interact with the firm directly and increasing transparency. The platform is designed to be compatible with any simple mobile phone so long as it can allow text messaging. “We are able to send informative and inquisitive messages at once to all our registered clients who are over 24000 and spread throughout the country. Similarly, the farmers can also reply the texts and even front other farmers who may be interested in partnering with us to access our funding. It’s interactive and also helps us monitor our field officers basing on the feedback we get directly from the farmers.” This has helped greatly the firm which unlike the other financial providers in the country, they provide intensive training eight week training before disbursement of the loan to ensure that the money helps a farmer grow to greater heights. In addition, they also make follow ups and monitoring of the projects providing advice and expertise knowledge and allowing clients to make inquiries. “We receive over 30 inquiries daily from our clients through this platform and therefore we encouraged by the bond the model is helping us create with our clients.”
The text messaging platform, which is free to the clients of Juhudi, has enhanced surveys on service delivery and client satisfaction. Walela noted that initially it would take long before getting the right representation on what they were researching on from their clients. “Currently we can send the surveys to over 24000 clients that we have and by the end of the day register over ten percent of respondents. This is impressive and has shortened the period we would have taken to conduct such surveys.”
The firm is also banking on the technology to educate their clients a move that Walela noted may help the firm cut down on the costs spent on experts in agribusiness. “One of the things we are experimenting with is showing training videos and training presentations on the tablets that are very specific and technical to agriculture. That way our loan officers don't have to be experts and they can just show the video and get people to understand a bit more about how to take care of their animals."
With recent mobile phone penetration statistics in the country indicating a rise in over 80 percent Walela noted that most firms should take advantage of the gains in the ICT sector to deepen economic development. “Since the introduction of the platform in our business last year, we have witnessed a sharp business growth and also brightened our goal of impacting over 100000 smallholder farmers in the country by 2015,” he said.