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02/04/2013

Mobile Phone app brings fortunes to village women.

For generations, breeding cows in the rural highlands of Kenya has hinged on knowledge and experience passed down from parents to children. But Mercy Wanjiku is unlike most farmers. Her most powerful tool is her cellphone, and a text messaging service called iCow.

The service informs her when her cows are in heat, which feed might boost their milk output and what their fair market price is. And when she needed a veterinarian recently, she relied on the service’s extensive database. “Otherwise, it would have been hard to find someone qualified in my area,” said Wanjiku, a 29-year-old farmer in Mweru, a village about 150 km north of Nairobi.

Big potential
In a nation where 80 percent of the population farm their land, iCow started off with a simple premise: The
creation of a gestation calendar would increase the productivity of the cows and, hence, food production and the wealth of individuals and communities.
Farmers can register their cows by sending a text message to iCow. That allows them to receive cellphone messages tailored to their needs. They get alerts, for example, on feeding schedules, on when to expect their cows to be in heat or on disease outbreaks. The service also functions as a classified list of sorts for farmers looking to connect with their peers to buy.

Su Kahumbu, founder of icow, said 42,000 farmers have signed up for iCow, a tiny percentage of Kenya’s farming millions. The potential, though, is enormous.
Kahumbu said she has received requests to launch iCow in nearby countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, as well as from Malaysia, Russia and China. Common to all the requests is the desire to find ways to create sustainable supplies of food — in particular, milk and other dairy products.

“It’s becoming a problem in developing nations because the food chain is under pressure,” she said. “Every time we have a drought, our food resources dry up. We are driving towards disaster if we don’t do anything about it.”

Improving lives
For Kahumbu, iCow is a way to make money. Each message costs the farmers 5 Kenyan shillings, or about 5 cents. Kahumbu also hopes to make money through advertising and strategic partnerships with cellphone operators. Depending on government or nonprofit groups to run iCow, she said, would open the door to manipulation.

Wanjiku and her family don’t mind the costs. She said the service is affordable and has helped her gain income. There also are some drawbacks, she said. The text messages are in English, but her 74-year-old grandmother speaks only Swahili and her tribal tongue.

Still, the veterinarian used by Wanjiku helped her to artificially inseminate Baraka, one of her cows. And when Baraka gave birth, the text messages helped Wanjiku feed the calf and watch out for diseases.
Recently she sold Baraka for the princely sum of 38,000 Kenyan shillings, or about $450. At first, the buyer low-balled her. But then Wanjiku checked the market prices with iCow and demanded the fair price. Her grandmother approved.

“It’s much easier to do the work now,” said her grandmother, whose name is also Mercy, standing next to their three cows.

This story has been adapted from the Washington Post.

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