A mobile phone application tracks each cow to inform the farmer about periods in gestation, feeding, milking and disease control.
A Kenyan farmer posted a message on the Farming Kenya Facebook website in April about disease-free seeds that were available from the Kenya Agri Research Institute during a period of severe damage to young maize crops in the country. Some days later, Kenyan farmers responded overwhelmingly. This was not generated by the Facebook message, however, but by an SMS sent by iCow to 9,000 farmers announcing the news and how to contact the research institute.
iCow was developed by Green Dream TECH Ltd and is the world’s first cell phone cow calendar. It enables small-scale farmers, mostly dairy farmers, to access agricultural information and services over the cell phone. Small-scale farmers in Kenya who are registered with iCow receive livestock management and other agricultural information by using text messages on their mobile phones and on the web. The application, which started in 2011, informs 11,000 farmers and other members of the platform in Kenya about important days during the gestation period, and feeding and milking practices. It also helps farmers to find the nearest vets and AI (artificial insemination) providers and provides information on disease control.
The iCow application is innovative because farmers can easily register themselves and their cows via SMS services. Kenyan dairy farmers are also given tailored, time-sensitive SMS updates on how to look after their cows during gestation, calving and throughout the rest of a cow’s life. All they have to do is send an SMS to 5024 – iCow’s four-digit code – which works on the network of providers Safaricom, Airtel and Orange. To register, the farmer sends a code message such as reg#farmername#county#. A cow can be registered by insemination date (serve#cowname#inseminationdate#) or by birth date (birth#cowname#date of birth#). Similar code messages enable farmers to find the nearest vets and AI providers. iCow’s services cost the farmer five Kenyan shillings (approximately US$0.06) per SMS.
Su Kahumbu, initiator and director of iCow, wants to bridge the information gap between younger and older farmers. But she is convinced that the way to do this is by working at the pace of the older ones to familiarize them with SMS applications. Hence, farmers may also contact iCow’s customer care centre in Nairobi to speak directly to someone for advice. The older farmers appreciate this combination of SMS and direct contact, because they do not trust an absolutely virtual service.
iCow already won the Apps4Africa award in 2010 before it was even formally launched, and more recently in April 2012 it won the Kenya Vision 2030 ICT Innovation Award in the agriculture category. iCow was also featured on Forbes.com as the best new African Mobile App. It received a grant from Indigo Trust to help the expansion process to reach more farmers in Kenya and USAID support with strategic business planning and partnerships development.
The first results from monitoring conducted by the iCow team show that farmers’ cows have increased their milk yields. Forty-two per cent of farmers using iCow have reported increased incomes. Half of these farmers attribute the rise to an increased milk yield ranging from 1.5 to 3 litres per cow due to better care for the cows. But iCow is not only a service geared towards providing better care and health to cows. Another of its features is a digital farmers’ market.
Farmers can buy and sell livestock through the iCow Soko platform by posting notices of animals they have for sale. iCow also enables farmers who only produce a small amount of milk to find each other and aggregate their product so that it can be taken to market.
Farmers are not the only members of iCow. Green Dream TECH’s mobile service is also useful for many organizations, government ministries and other stakeholders in the agricultural sector. iCow draws pertinent data from the field, data that the wider agricultural sector can use to create efficiencies across the agricultural value chain. In a way, iCow is using the platform to crowdsource and collect data that is important to improve value chain development.
The platform allows farmers to alert the system immediately when there are disease outbreaks, allowing everyone to react to it quickly. The local authorities can then broadcast this news to all farmers on the platform in the affected region, telling them where and when to find vaccination services. Other stakeholders are using it to advertise agricultural field days or exhibitions in certain locations, or to offer financial services.