Knowing “WhatsApp” with Food Security

Fredrick Korir is a young extension agent from Bomet County, located in Kenya’s agricultural heartland. Bomet, spanning over 1600 square kilometers, has a diverse landscape featuring lush hills where maize, fruit trees and sweet potatoes grow. It is also home to fields that reach across high plains where wheat flourishes and herds of cattle graze. As one of the County’s ninety agricultural extension workers who interact directly with farmers to improve food security, Fred covers only a fraction of the county, but has four hundred farmers and a huge area to cover by foot, bus, or motorcycle.

It was the U.S. Government’s global food security and hunger initiative, Feed the Future, that helped Fred devise a plan to use a simple mobile phone app to solve his monumental task.

In 2015 Fred was a recent university graduate and had been out of work for close to two years. That all changed when the Bomet County government decided to hire a new group of youth agriculture extension agents. With the support of USAID Kenya and implemented by Feed the Future’s continental-wide capacity building, Africa Lead, these agriculture extension agents were provided the “Champions for Change” leadership training to help boost agricultural extension services in the county. Part of the training focused on strategic planning for and use of information communications technologies (ICT) in extension services.

Fred Korir and Sharon Cherotich, joined Bomet County’s new cadre of youth extension agents. Bomet County leadership hired new youth extension agents following planning processes brought on by Africa Lead’s capacity building and training support. Photo credit: Victor Oloo / Africa Lead

With Kenya embracing the devolution of government services from the national to county level, each county has had the huge task of quickly creating systems to bring effective development to people at the local level. Initially, Africa Lead, as part of a multi-county training effort, offered the Champions for Change Leadership Training for 60 county officials from various arms of the Bomet County government. In this training members of the Ministry of Agribusiness created an action plan to hire the 35 youth extension agents who develop action plans in an Africa Lead training, which would later be tied to performance contracts.

Fred, who had received training on e-extension by the Kenyan government in 2012, created a plan to use ICT apps, not only to tell people about the work he was doing, but to improve farmer-to-farmer learning and increase the number of farmers he could reach. Fred first created a chat group of just the farmers he worked with. As it became more popular, he coordinated with his extension colleagues and they decided to form a county wide group called “Real Farmers”. The result has been game changing.

Now about five groups have been created across Bomet’s various WhatsApp groups. Additionally, other County staff use WhatsApp it to coordinate efforts, share pictures of issues on farms, and link farmers with commercial opportunities.

“The farmers are getting more information faster, as an extension officer I am able to address several challenges that farmers are facing. We can share experiences. Farmers can share experiences by [sharing] the problems they face to the group and participants can help identify the problem,” says Fredrick.

Bomet County extension agent Fred Korir, stands in Stanley Tulgut’s plot with sweet potatoes at his feet, bananas (left) and sugar cane (right), as he monitors feedback from Bomet County farmers on his WhatsApp group, “Real Farmers”. Photo credit: Thom Wallace / Africa Lead

Fredrick estimates that prior to the training he saw 4-5 farmers per day going personally to their plots. Now, using his phone he can reach about 800 farmers a day instantaneously. He also reaches his various lists of farmers using bulk text messaging offered by Kenya’s Safaricom. The success of Bomet’s new extension agent training and the resulting technology innovations are part of a larger successful relationship between Feed the Future’s Africa Lead program and Bomet County.

Most importantly, from the field to the market, Bomet County is building better and more efficient ways to know “WhatsApp” when it comes to agriculture and food security.

Bomet County farmer, Stanley Tulgut, stands with his daughter on his farm and displays the sweet potatoes that he has harvested. Mr. Tulgut credits Bomet County extension agents with helping to diversify his crops, improve yields, and increase income. Photo credit Thom Wallace / Africa Lead.

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