According to a 2013 United Nations report six billion of the world’s estimated seven billion people have access to mobile phones. But 75% of the world’s population has no internet access and more often than not it’s these people who need better information and support services the most.

Small-scale farmers often experience many of the same challenges, whether it’s tackling soil erosion or coping with changes to climatic conditions. However, these shared struggles are not necessarily specific to one location, which is where WeFarm comes in. WeFarm is “the internet for people without the internet”: it gives small-scale farmers the opportunity to share knowledge and connect with one another through SMS messages. With many of the latest advances in farming technology focused on online tools, WeFarm returned to basic mobile technology and SMS as this was the reality of the situation on the ground. Kenny Ewan, CEO of WeFarm, told the Sustainable Food Trust “Consultations with the farming communities we work with suggest that, at very most, only 10% of small-scale famers in developing countries have any access to the internet. While this will gradually change over the coming years, it will remain low for the foreseeable future. As an organisation we did not want to be handing out new equipment and tools to people – ultimately this is unsustainable and unscalable. If you want to do something that will support communities around thew world, you have to innovate using the tools that people have – in this case basic mobile phone that can use SMS. Approximately 90% of the farmers we work with have access to a basic mobile, and so the basic idea for WeFarm was born.”

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Users simply send their question to WeFarm via SMS message, using their local mobile phone provider. WeFarm then uses the internet to share the message through their unique translation system to other WeFarm users, who receive it via SMS. Many smallholders often have generations’ worth of farming knowledge to share, which can have a huge impact on improving the lives of other farmers who are in need of accessible agricultural information. As Kenny explains, “We believe we have created something genuinely pioneering and groundbreaking. Our system allows a farmer in Kenya, 20 miles walk form the nearest village or expert advice, to receive vital ideas and knowledge to his or her phone, completely free, in their own language, without having to leave the farm or buy anything new!”

But how can a farmer in Africa understand a farmer in South America? WeFarm is breaking language barriers through its community of bilingual volunteers, who take just one minute out of their day to translate questions, answers or ideas shared by farmers using their smartphone or computer. By avoiding an automated translation service, they can ensure that messages are as accurate as possible.

WeFarm want to see more peer to peer learning between farmers, especially in rural, isolated areas in developing countries. “Farmers have often been farming the same crop for generations, and have a huge amount of experience and ideas to share with each other. A great example of why it’s important for farmers to connect with each other and share knowledge is the increasing threat from climate change that many of the small-scale farmers are facing. Crop diseases and pests that might never been seen in an area before are starting to emerge. Who better to help the coffee farmer in Kenya facing this new threat, than the coffee farmer in Peru, or in Uganda, who has been facing it for years, and has a great deal of grassroots knowledge to share?” We couldn’t agree more!

WeFarm was developed and tested over five years with farmers from Peru, Tanzania and Kenya. Nearly 6,000 messages were exchanged during this time. In 2014, the developers were crowned the winners of the Google Impact challenge, which means they can now focus on scale and expanding the service to farmers all around the world.

To do this, WeFarm is looking for volunteers to translate every question asked into multiple languages, from Spanish to Swahili. If languages aren’t your thing there are other ways to support this innovative project. Visit the website to find out more.

Photograph: Neil Palmer (CIAT) 

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