Over the past two and a half years we have developed and piloted WeFarm, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing network for smallholder farmers in the most isolated locations worldwide. Using WeFarm, a farmer can crowdsource a solution to a common agricultural challenge or share an idea, using just a basic mobile phone to send a local-rate SMS. It that has been designed and piloted with smallholder farming communities in Peru, Kenya and Tanzania, enabling farmers to share information in English, Spanish and Swahili, with the help of a smartphone translation app and team of translation volunteers in the UK.
From early on in the project, we realised that WeFarm would need to generate its own revenue in order to be sustainable in the long term. Working closely with farming communities also helped us to see the huge potential for revenue generation based on the value of farmers’ knowledge, and unique relationship which WeFarm has with its user group.
During 2012 we secured a small grant from IAP to develop a business plan for WeFarm. Our vision was to create a model that would achieve 3 key things :
Attract 1st phase grant funding to build a more robust and scaled-up WeFarm platform, and roll-out access to it across a much greater number of smallholder farmers. The CPF network incorporates more than 280,000 small-scale tea, coffee and cocoa farmers across 12 countries in Africa and Latin America, approximately 90% of whom lack regular access to the internet.
Plan and develop diverse income streams that would allow what is currently a grant-funded NGO project to become a self-sustaining social enterprise, that can attract 2nd phase commercial (social) investment.
And ultimately to generate enough profit through these revenue streams that WeFarm could return value to the famers and communities who create the information on WeFarm – ‘peer-to-peer micro consultancy’!
The first of these key areas has been the most straightforward and seen some big successes already. An operational plan has been developed to create the next generation of the WeFarm platform and roll it out to over 10,000 smallholders by 2014. Initial grant funding to support the scale-up before revenue is created, has been secured from the US based Knight Foundation – enabling WeFarm to have a launch ready platform, and be registered as an independent enterprise, within the next 12 months.
The second point on finding sustainable revenue sources for WeFarm, which is generally targeted at farmers living on around $1 a day, has been a challenging but always rewarding process. As with the design and building of the WeFarm pilot platform itself, we have involved the communities and farmers who use the system in the process as much as possible. In August 2012 we held a series of workshops with smallholder tea farmers in Maua, Kenya to explore their insights into the business planning process.
For the first few years of operation a number of potential revenue streams, with varying levels of importance, have been identified, evaluated by farmers, and will be tested in the coming months; including: advertising, sponsorships, consultancy, collation of data from communities with no other digital profile, and links to 3rd party services (such as micro-credit, insurance, etc.)
The long term vision, and third priority listed above, is a bigger challenge for WeFarm. At heart this vision aims to achieve both sustainable community ownership of the project (even if some equity has to be sold for investment), and to place an actual economic value on the knowledge that farmers are contributing.
If, for example, a small-scale coffee farmer in Mexico shares an insight via the WeFarm platform that in turn enables other coffee famers around the world to improve their yields, surely he should receive a benefit which recognises the value of his knowledge? Our vision is that profit generated through WeFarm could be returned to the users, like our farmer in Mexico, who are making the system work, perhaps in the form of micro-credits, or farming materials. These are the questions that the WeFarm team, and the farming communities we are working with, will continue to explore and find answers to over the next phase, as WeFarm transitions from an NGO programme to a stand-alone enterprise.
To find out more about WeFarm visit www.wefarm.info and follow us on Twitter @we_farm