“I think, if you look at our vision, you could say that small-scale agriculture is the biggest industry of Earth. It’s a half billion people; it’s the entire world’s supply chain; it’s the origin or commodities markets, and nobody’s really built a platform on that,” Kenny Ewan, founder, and CEO of Wefarm, tells AgFunderNews.
Wefarm is a mobile phone-based farmer network and collective for smallholders farmers in Africa.
The startup uses AI technology to connect small-scale farmers to crowdsourced information by enabling them to share techniques and advice on anything from how to battle a disease to how to increase their income. Farmers can ask questions in any language and messaging is free of charge.
If farmers don’t have internet access, they can access Wefarm via SMS on their mobile phones. Wefarm’s machine learning algorithms then match each question to the best-suited responder. The average time it takes for a farmer to receive an answer to their question is under six minutes – even for farmers without internet.
“We launched in 2015 in Kenya and added Uganda in 2016. We now have over a million approaching 1.4 million farmers using Wefarm,” says Ewan.
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With an impressive database of users, the outfit is now working on another way to resolve smallscale farmers’ hardships: an online agribusiness marketplace. This new marketplace will help farmers obtain better and cheaper access to critical inputs like seed and fertilizer.
We caught up with Ewan to find out more about Wefarm and the new marketplace.
How Does Wefarm work?
A farmer can ask us a question on anything, in just about any local language, even through SMS for free and get a bespoke answer back. So in practical terms, let’s say a farmer in rural Kenya whose chicken isn’t laying any eggs or their coffee plants are being attacked by a disease, she can send us an SMS outlining the problem. Wefarm uses evermore sophisticated machine learning and AI to understand everything that farmer’s trying to tell us by looking into as much background as possible on who they are, where they are, what they’re farming, and the point of the question. Oftentimes they’re sending messages on old school Nokia phones that have two keys missing, so our technology has to understand what that farmer’s saying to us.
We also determine who in our network is best-placed to answer that question, whether it’s another farmer, an extension agent, a graduate. We’re agnostic as to who they are; all that we are looking for is the best person to answer the question.
How are you monetizing this?
We launched in 2015 in Kenya and added Uganda in 2016. We now have approaching 1.4 million farmers using Wefarm [adding 200k in two months] and incredible rates of contribution, processing more than a million questions and answers a month. It’s content on a global scale comparable to Wikipedia and so on top of that we want this ecosystem we’ve built to be able to tackle other needs for farmers such as access to products and services. You know trusted sources of seeds and fertilizers, trusted access to capital and financial services, trusted access to markets to ultimately sell their crops. So we’re building a marketplace on top of Wefarm, enabling farmers to start obtaining crops and services, products and services from trusted sources at cheaper prices, and which is ultimately a huge business model for us, but also enables us to continue to provide value to farmers.
How far along are you in launching the new marketplace?
Yes, we started selling our first products. At this stage, it’s a relatively small scale. Our focus is not on our revenue at the moment, but on building awesome products that farmers love. We are starting with relatively small-scale stuff to make sure that it works successfully and that the farmers get a good experience. So we’ve had farmers buying seed packs, salt, and other basic agricultural products through Wefarm. Our goal for the next twelve months is to scale it to many more users while providing a wider range of products and services and making sure that a farmer can get whatever he or she needs, whenever they need it.
Are there any competitors offering a marketplace to smallscale farmers?
There are a few people that have worked on this area. It’s been one of the most common challenges people try to solve. I guess what is fundamentally different about what Wefarm is doing is that we are providing the marketplace service on a platform that already has 1.2 million users and going back to 3,000 farmers a day. It’s obviously extremely hard to build a marketplace from scratch so that’s why we’ve really been able to crack this.
Have people compared you to Farmers Business Network in the US?
People have been trying to tag us for this kind of stuff for a while. People have always thought that it’s FBN but you know, I think there are also comparisons with what we’re doing with Amazon. Ultimately there are social aspects to Wefarm as well, we’re providing a really interesting, engaging tool for farmers to use.
I guess you can predict what I’m going to say… is that ultimately I think we’re our own service. We’re a social mission network. We’re ultimately of very high commercial value to our customers but we’re a mission-driven company working to provide the platform for the entire global small-scale farming ecosystem. I hope pretty soon you’ll be printing articles saying somebody’s the Wefarm of somewhere, to be honest.
Who are your investors? Are they mostly impact investors?
We are a mission-driven company so we have a social mission that we are looking to accomplish, but we’re not an impact investment. We are also a for-profit company looking to generate huge amounts of revenue. Our investors today are commercial investors that are investing in us for normal and traditional reasons but also looking to create a difference. Our first seed rounds and pre-seed rounds were led by LocalGlobe in London who are statistically the best seed fund in Europe. Our proper seed rounds a few years ago were led by True Ventures in Silicon Valley, which was amazing for us because it is very, very rare for mainstream Silicon Valley VC to invest in a European early-stage startup. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that’s happened over the last decade.
Wefarm last raised funding in March this year. When do you plan to do another round of fundraising?
Over the next six months, we’re going to be raising our next round of Series A. Really, the heart of what we’re going to be raising for is to replicate our success in Kenya and Uganda across other markets. Those markets are is a work in progress but we’re obviously looking at key countries such as India and a few other obvious ones across the West of Africa and South East Asia.
According to our numbers, 25% of all the farms in Kenya and Uganda use Wefarm. We need to start replicating that across other markets. We’re also looking to a fully online/offline service and making sure that farmers increasingly have access to smartphones and data services so that we can also provide a richer service online, as well as the SMS service.