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Farmers find new hope in extension services

By Gardy Chacha
Precision Agriculture for Development Kenya Country Director Emmanuel Bakirdjian, during an interview with the Standard. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Emmanuel Bakirdjian is the country director at Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD), a non-profit organisation that provides agricultural extension services remotely. He tells Smart Harvest how farmers stand to gain from extension services.

What is precision Agriculture?

We are a non-profit organisation. We operate in seven countries – Kenya included. We are three years old now. Our main mission is to support small holder farmers.

How so?

By providing them with high quality, actionable and customized information through their mobile phones. We focus on providing extension services digitally. We use SMS and interactive voice response (IVR). We partner with the government and large organisations to succeed in our work.

Is there such a thing as ‘precision agriculture’?

In agriculture, there’s a range of services between buying inputs and selling your output. We focus on extension.

The precision part of it comes in where we try as much as possible to customize this information and advice, based on different parameters such as location of the farm, type of soil, the weather and so on. We try to give farm-specific information.

How many farmers are you working with in Kenya?

Let me explain one of our main initiatives. We have been working with Ministry of Agriculture. Our partnership started with the issue of fall armyworm detected in Africa in 2016 and got into Kenya in 2017.

When we began working in Kenya, in our discussions with the ministry, they wanted us to disseminate information about this new pest to local farmers. There was a lot of rumours on fall armyworm – and some of the information was false.

Our job was to give farmers proper information that can help them make the right decision on their crops. We then set up an SMS platform (toll free) available on Safaricom and Airtel.

In July 2018 we launched the platform. Since then we have managed to register 360,000 users of the platform.

You work with all types of farmers?

Not yet. Currently we are working with farmers growing maize, beans and potatoes. For the short rain season we are planning to add three more crops: sweet potatoes, bananas and pigeon peas.

Let’s assume I am a maize farmer: what kind of information will you send me?

First, all our recommendations take into consideration latest research. We want to encourage farmers to adopt better farming practices – from planting to harvesting. Hopefully, if you follow all these practices carefully and closely you end up with a bountiful yield.

Give me examples of the information you will send me.

There is pre-planting, planting and taking care of the crops. We tell you the best pesticides to use when confronted with pests. We give you advice on crop varieties that grow well under weather conditions and soil type at your location.

You will also benefit from our advice on fertilizers and the extent to which they will boost yield. We will give you options based on your budget.

Why is this information important to the farmer?

Let me be clear. We are not solving everything in the agricultural sector. A farmer still has access to inputs and access to markets to deal with. The information we give the farmer are solely targeting yield: for the farmer to improve quality and quantity of their produce.

Using improved seed varieties, the right type of fertilizer, using polymers to control soil acidity, following all the recommended practices… and so on, should result in good yields. We try to give the best advice given the prevailing situation.

Do you interact with the farmers face to face?

Yes. We have met some (not all) of the farmers on the SMS platform. We do surveys as we work with farmers. So sometimes, to get feedback, we have to travel to where the farmers are.

So far what is the response from farmers receiving your services?

Not all of the farmers registered on our platform are active. Our estimate is about 45 per cent of them are active: they have some interaction on the platform. These are the ones growing maize, beans and potatoes – the crops we are currently providing extension services on.

Does the platform have the option of a farmer calling or texting in to inquire and ask questions?

We don’t have that feature currently because it would be resource intensive. However, anyone can text in through the number if they want to. What we try to do is connect these farmers to extension officers available in their location.

We have registered 1,300 agro dealers and 450 extension workers on the platform. The idea is that at the point where a farmer may need an extension worker to assess their farm in person we will be able to connect them with one and they will be able to get help.

How do farmers join to get the free extension services from PAD?

Text ‘Farm’ – for English users, or, ‘Shamba’ – for Kiswahili users, to 40130. Through a two-way automated SMS system you will be able to detail who you are and what type of farming you are engaged in. We take all the necessary information so that we can be sending you information that will go into increasing your yield.  

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