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I’m feeding Kenyans through organic farming

By | October 30th 2011 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

SU KAHUMBU STEPHANOU spoke to SHIRLEY GENGA about her fascinating and fulfilling journey into organic farming and the groundbreaking mobile application, iCow that not only made it to Forbes.com but is also changing farming in Kenya

I grew up on a farm in Karen. My father also had a farm in Njoro and we visited my grandparents’ farm regularly. I was surrounded by a farming environment.

In 1996, I was living in South Africa with my young family when I saw hydroponic farming for the first time. This basically is farming without soil. I was intrigued and felt this technology could revolutionise farming in the slums in Kenya.

SU with her children

On returning to Kenya in 1997, we set up a hydroponic experiment. But we put lettuce seed into the soil on my mum’s farm and the result was an overproduction of lettuce far beyond our need.

My marketing sixth sense kicked in and I decided to put the excess lettuce in the market in an innovative way — by developing the convenient salad pack.

The business began to grow. Soon we had new products and outgrowers helping us meet the demand.

Like most farmers in Kenya, I did not know about the harmful effects of pesticides when I was getting into farming. We had a cupboard full of arsenal to kill every bug we saw, and there were many; and we poured loads of fertiliser into the soil. It was while doing this ignorant farming that my mother was caught downwind in spray drift and became ill due to the toxins in the sprays. The penny dropped and I realised that we were poisoning ourselves, our families as well as our consumers with this method of farming.

I, therefore, started to explore the alternatives. Soon I stumbled upon the beautiful fulfilling and safe farming method that is organic farming. This is a farming method that builds the soils and respects nature by recognising and supporting biodiversity and balance.

When done correctly, there is no need for pesticides in the quantities and doses that poison farming. The insects balance themselves out. Beneficial insects eat predator insects; it is truly fascinating. Scary retail market

Later I moved to Tigoni where I founded my company, Green Dreams, in 1999 through which I produced and marketed organic produce for Nairobi consumers.

As demand grew for our products, we developed a training arm for our eager small-scale farmers on the beauty and intricacies of organic production.

Soon supply outstripped demand and we headed into mainstream supermarkets; but only for a short while. Soon we learned the scary truth of retail so we backed out and started our own store, the Organic Shop, in 2005.

Since then, we have morphed with the times, facing bankruptcy often, but reinventing ourselves to survive each time.

We have realised that after surviving the post-election violence in 2007, the ensuing economic collapse of early 2008 and the tail end of the global financial collapse soon afterwards, there are only two things that enable one to survive as a businessman or woman — resilience and size.

We base our bottom line on impact, not shillings. We look at the impact we have had on the lives of farmers and consumers, as well as the environment.

I have been involved in the organic industry for the past 12 years now. Apart from that I have been a contributor to The Organic Farmer (TOF) magazine since 2005 and in the training of farmers all over Kenya, sponsored by Bio Vision.

During my trainings I began to realise that one of the biggest challenges facing farmers was access to farming information. Even though we were using print and web channels to deliver agri-info, more could be done. Mobile platform

Also, after helping the Kibera Youth Reform Group turn a garbage site in the slum into an organic farm, I realised that the youth were extremely able to take up agriculture when empowered with new technologies. For Kenya to develop into a food-secure nation we need to harness the power of the youth.

It thus felt logical to explore the avenue of delivering agri-information over the mobile phone.

Back in 2004, I had witnessed the power of a mobile phone. During the Tsunami in 2004, my family and I were at the Coast and I almost lost my two children in the ocean. When I returned to Nairobi, I knew I had to do something for those affected so I called up my friend Michael Joseph, then the chief executive officer of Safaricom, and ran an idea by him about starting a mobile fund, later called The Kenya Tsunami Relief Fund. Subscribers could donate their top-up credit. This was the first time money moved over mobile networks in Kenya. I like to say that it is my claim to the Mpesa mobile money revolution. Mpesa later came in 2007.

So I started my journey to provide farmers with a wide variety of farming solutions that would be affordable as well as accessible across the country and mKulima Farmer Information Service and Helpline (mKulima FISH) was born.

In 2010, while still in the process of developing the information service, I was asked to enter mKulima into the Apps4Africa, an East African regional competition designed to highlight the talent of local developers and to leverage the power of mobile technology to help solve some of Africa’s most nagging problems. Cow calendar

Because mKulima was not complete, I decided to enter a smaller module from the platform, the cow gestation calendar that I named iCow. iCow went on to win first place in the event.

iCow is the world’s first mobile phone cow calendar. The SMS and voice-based mobile phone application is like a virtual veterinary midwife as it helps farmers track the oestrous stages of their cows, while giving them valuable tips on cow breeding, animal nutrition, milk production efficiency and gestation.

iCow also helps farmers find the nearest vet and artificial insemination providers; keeps milk and breeding records and sends farmers best dairy practices. Each text message costs Sh5. The application is designed to run on both low-end and high-end mobile phones and its purpose is to reduce cow mortality rates, produce healthier and more robust calves and, ultimately, provide improved financial returns for the farmers.

iCow offers a series of other features including a livestock market and market prices.

My greatest hope is that iCow will be able to bridge the gap between the aged farmers and the youth. I intend to populate the platform with features that will excite and encourage the youth to get involved in agriculture.

iCow officially launched operations in June this year. Farmers in 27 counties are currently using it and we continue to provide an ever-growing number of features and solutions.

Forbes magazine recently did a story on iCow. It was a great moment for me. Maybe very soon I will be smiling next to Oprah and the Queen.

My big picture is to enable farmers take control and responsibility of their farming activities by providing solutions that give them access to cost effective and relevant agri-information and services. I am creating a system that will result in farmers improving their soils across our continent, and as such improve food security.

System designing for the mobile platform requires multitasking all day and sometimes all night long. I enjoy having creative freedom that allows me to develop out-of-the-box solutions.

Being able to work in the ICT space with subject matter expertise is incredible. There are zillions of opportunities. I wish I had time to do them all but there are not enough hours in a day. I lie awake at night wishing the sun would rise so that I can get back to work.

Given the nature of my spirit and work, I do not plan. I go with the best flow. My mother often argues I am too spontaneous but this is who I am.

My life’s goal is to do everything to the best of my ability. It is the motto I give my children too — I tell them to make a difference and to make sure it is huge.


SU KAHUMBU STEPHANOU iCow Kibera Youth Reform
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