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Want to be a farmer? Bin your phone, buy gumboots, and get used to mud

It is human to want to make an extra dime. Such money is even sweeter when it easily from the toughest source of riches: the soil.

More so, if all it took for the money to reach you was just a few calls and text messages to a compliant shamba boy. Once spurred, the shamba boy dutifully carried out your instructions to the letter: buying seeds and fertilizer, breaking his back readying the land for planting season. All while you sit and wait for results from the comfort of your home in the city.

This is a dream, of course. A dream for a lot of city dwellers who have burnt their fingers trying their hands in farming while they are far from the farm itself in what has translated into telephone farming.  

Agriculture, says Gilad Millo, a farmer, is a daily function that demands a lot of dedication.

Gillad shows of his farm. Photo: Courtesy

“My dad told me there is no such thing as easy money in this life,” says Millo, who is also a former Israeli diplomat.

“If you think that you are going to take your shamba in Isiolo, Embu, and you live in Nairobi and you are gonna go and buy seeds and plant and visit it once every three weeks or once every two weeks and things will be wonderful and you will make a lot of money, probably not.”

Agriculture, the mainstay of Kenya’s economy, is one of the most lucrative money-makers.

Its attractiveness has been pronounced in recent times while other investment opportunities such as the stock market are drying out, says Dr Timothy Njagi, a research fellow with the Tegemeo Institute, a think-tank affiliated with Egerton University.

Other areas that people in the city who have been beaten by the side-hustle bug would have pumped their money is real estate, but that one has also been underperforming, besides being capital-intensive, Njagi adds.

This has left a lot of investors with the speculative world of telephone farming, with a lot of them hiring shambas in areas as far as Embu where they keep pumping millions for inputs such as fertilizer, seeds, chemicals; or services such as watering and weeding but getting minimal returns.

There are three types of telephone farmers, says Samuel Gikonyo, the Project Coordinator at Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Gikonyo has worked with farmers, including telephone farmers, for close to 18 years. He was once a telephone farmer himself.  

The first type of a telephone farmer - and who has been robbed the most-, is one who, for one reason or the other, rarely goes to the farm.

Most likely, they don’t even understand what is being grown in the shamba having been lured by tales of high returns from a certain crop. Yet these are the ones that will tell you how such and such a business is not doing well.

“They hear that avocado is going like hot cake, then they go and look for someone and put him on the farm,” says Gikonyo.

The problem is that the telephone farmer might be sending money for farming but being shown a neighbour’s shamba.

“The shamba boy might even organise with the neighbours or even random people who are coached to give a certain narrative,” he adds.

“They will tell you that a monkey came and ate the maize in the shamba or cows strayed in the plantation.”

There is the second telephone farmer who might know anything about farming a certain crop but resolve to learn about it.

They will call, look for information on the price of seeds, fertilizer, or where to get the right chemicals.

“He calls other people and asks about everything. Sometimes they succeed because they rely on different people for information,” explains Gikonyo, noting that they will normally be coordinating with other people on the telephone.

This one is somehow safe because they get to spread the risk. Even if they lose, they don’t lose a lot of money as they deal with different people for different functions.

The person watering might be different, the person doing fertilizer is also different and so on.  

Then there is a third type of telephone farmer like Dr Gladys Nzau, a lecturer at Kenyatta University. Dr Nzau has a farm in Matuu where she rears pigs but lives in Syokimau, which is a two-hour drive away.

She visits her farm once a week, which has helped her to monitor progress.

But even that does not mean that things have been good, with at some point people who she had left on the farm failing to feed her piglets until they got emaciated.

Distance has, of course, been a hindrance to her although she would have loved to be a full-time farmer. However, the returns do not allow her to quit her day time job.

In her long experience in farming, she realized that people will always to get the better of you, noting that those who have failed her the most are her relatives.

“Sometimes, workers tell you that they can’t do a certain duty but when you push them you realise it is something they can do in a few minutes,” says Dr Nzau.

Telephone farmers, especially the first type, are always looking for a place to make a quick buck.

“Most telephone farmers are speculative. You hear this is making money, you jump into it,” says Njagi, noting that this is very common in crops with a short season like three months. They rarely specialize and they end up burning their fingers as they don’t stay long enough to learn the ropes.

Millo says he works with over 80 out-growers including telephone farmers. He provides them with seeds, training and guides them through the season; then gives them a contract, and buys back from them.

“And my advice to the telephone farmers, which I tell them always, is I don’t think it works.”

He insists that the only way telephone farming can work, is if you have someone who really knows what they are doing on the ground. It can be a shamba boy, or shamba girl, or farm manager.

“That is the person I need to train because that is the person who is doing the work.

Because at the end of the day, that is the person who is doing the work. And even for that one, you need to micro-manage.”

He insists that to be a telephone farmer you need to be involved, noting that on his farm, he has a CCTV camera which he can see through his phone.

“I can see if they are telling the truth or not.”

Indeed, the true telephone farmers are those making use of a growing number of technologies and platforms to help them choose and manage their crops more efficiently.

And mobile devices are giving a growing number of them the ability to do this while continuing to live and work in the city.

But another way of successfully doing telephone farming is by coming together, buying a bigger parcel of land, hiring an experienced farmhand who you can pay per yield.

If the harvest is good, then you can pay the farm manager well.

In the end, says Millo, telephone farming can work if you manage it correctly, which means employing the right person on the ground, making sure that person has the correct skills and also giving them the correct salary that will motivate them to work correctly too.

“If you are paying them nothing then don’t expect them to work,” says Millo.