Billing itself as "The Internet for people without the Internet," WeFarm's survival depended on finding a way to build mobile communities where broadband is non-existent, and smart phones are scarce. Telefonica's James Lasbrey joined the call, adding color on how Wayra, Telefonica's "startup accelerator", fits into the picture.
It might seem improbable that vibrant communities could be formed via SMS alone. But WeFarm's numbers prove it can be done:
- Questions asked: 38299
- Answers given: 67735
- Total users: 27676
- SMS shared: 3.5M
The founding of WeFarm: conquering geographic isolation
But it wasn't easy to get there. The roots of WeFarm trace back to Ewan's volunteer work with an NGO in Latin America after graduation. He started as a contractor designing fish farms, eventually directing that NGO across Latin America:
I was working mostly with indigenous communities. That's where the seeds of WeFram came from. I could see firsthand the grassroots innovations they were continually creating to tackle small problems.
Geographic isolation limited the network effect:
Traveling ten miles down the road, a similar community had the same kind of problem, but hadn't heard about the solution, which is literally a few miles away.
Meanwhile, peer-to-peer technology was surging on the Internet:
Five years ago, I was offered a job to return to the U.K. as part of the startup team for a U.K. NGO, working with tea and coffee farmers across Africa and Latin America. One of the first projects I designed was WeFarm, in collaboration with one of my colleagues.
Ewan thinks peer-to-peer philosophies can be just as effective in developing countries:
I think there's a preconception that poor people - especially if those poor people are in developing countries - just need to be told what to do. If you look at the big web sites in the western world, whether it's eBay or Facebook or Google or anything else, they are all working with peer-to-peer networks.
Can you imagine if Google had five people sitting in a room answering questions? The rules aren't different in the developing world. You just have to build a network in a way that people can access, which is what we did.
From charity project to funded business
With mobile phone usage spreading across Africa, the idea of using SMS to network farmers crystallized. Four years ago, WeFarm began. It started as a charity, boosted by grant funding. Eighteen months later, the team had a prototype. That's when they started thinking bigger, moving from "cool project" to real business model.
Then last year, WeFarm won Google World's Impact Challenge, providing launch funding. After a subsequent boost from Telefonica's Wayra program, WeFarm launched in Kenya in February 2015.
To make the launch happen, Ewan's team worked with farming organizations in thirteen different countries, with pilots in Kenya, Tanzania, and Peru. Ewan credits the connections he made working in NGOs as the key to rolling out WeFarm. These on-the-ground organizations were able to recruit farmers and convince them to try.
Go-live: "Terrifying is the word I'd use."
I asked Ewan if he was nervous on February 1, the day they flipped the switch in Kenya:
Jon: That must have been a fun day, right? Where you're like, "God, I hope someone actually sends a text message out."
Kenny: Fun? Maybe. I think "terrifying" is the word I'd use.
But the legwork with organizations on the ground paid off - within two weeks, there were 500 users on the system; WeFarm was off and running. As of this writing, there are twenty-five thousand users, with the user base doubling in size every six or seven weeks.
I asked Ewan how the farmers reacted when text messages started to fly:
Kenny I remember being in rural Peru the first time that a message came through from Africa. It was to a Peruvian farmer. The message had gone through the translation system. It was in Spanish - the farmer had just received a message from the other side of the world. The look on their face made it worthwhile.
Kenny: The farmer told me after, "We didn't believe it when you told us. We thought it was going to be some sort of trick."
And what would a common text question be? Ewan:
A lot of the examples we see are people diversifying or starting a new crop, or keeping a new type of animal they were interested in, but never knew how to do it. That's a classic example of how other people in the WeFarm community have experience of doing that, and can provide assistance. We've had people start rabbit farms, or keeping chickens, and being coached through that by the network.
Keys to WeFarm's mobile success
The narrative in my head is that "big farming" is pushing the family farmer out of existence. But for WeFarm, which focuses on the small farmer, that story isn't accurate. Cooperatives are helping the small farmer compete:
A lot of the small farmers we work with are part of a cooperative. Six or seven thousand of them will be part of a cooperative that they own themselves, but obviously gives them a much more powerful voice in the marketplace. That's not specifically connected to WeFarm, but it's a great way for us to be able to build our network through an association, rather than individual farmers.
When I asked Ewan about the keys to WeFarm's success, he pointed to the design process, which involved farmers from the get-go:
Something I'm really critical of: people design these solutions in Washington or London or whatever, and then take them to the developing world and expect people just to use it. We very consciously made the farmers part of the design process. Several times, we took our web guys out from London and worked all day with farmers. When we launched the alpha product, we knew that they'd already been part of it.
Ewan also credits the guidance from Telefonica and his contact James Lasbrey, who lent a big hand at the right time:
We were keen to connect with a major network operator, especially for our Latin American operation. Telefonica seemed like a perfect situation. We were lucky enough to get into the Wayra incubator program from January. For us, transitioning out of the charity to become a business, the coaches in the Wayra program have been really helpful. We needed a network like this; meeting people like James has given us access to people we'd never normally have been able to work with.
Looking ahead: we want 1 million subscribers
WeFarm now has a core team of eight; its systems process more than 100,000 SMS messages a day. But they're not stopping there. Ewan is eyeing a "2.0 design" that will help WeFarm to scale, and construct a sustainable business model. For the short term, that business model will include localized lead generation, connecting farmers with local services and merchants. But in the long term, Ewan sees this as a data business:
The long-term plays in the data. By definition, we're working with a completely unconnected audience that make up a lot of the world's supply chain. I can see WeFarm working with businesses in the U.K. or the U.S. or wherever to help them manage the supply chain, to make it more efficient. Thirty-three billion dollars worth of food is lost before it gets anywhere near landing in the western world. That's a huge loss for businesses we can help to tackle.
And that means user growth: Ewan wants to get to 1 million users by the end of this year. Based on active user rates of seventy percent (Twitter is about thirteen percent), Ewan knows if he can get farmers signed up, they will be active.
Hard work lies ahead, but Ewan seems driven by his purpose. Telefonica's James Lasbrey thinks their success is just beginning:
Currently, WeFarm is only focused on three to four markets. This has huge appeal and potential benefits globally. If we can get behind this, this is the type of initiative that can really make a difference.
A story I look forward to following...
Image credits: photo of WeFarm farmers provided by WeFarm. Kenny Ewan's picture is his Twitter profile photo.
Disclosure: diginomica has no financial relationship with WeFarm or Telefonica. I was contacted about this story by Telefonica PR, and took them up on the offer based on my interest.