Using mobile technology to provide organic agricultural inputs to Kenyan farmers


Evergrow Organic Fertilizer

At Sanergy, we take a systems-based approach to addressing food security challenges while solving the sanitation crisis in urban slums. We ensure professional removal of waste from urban communities and convert it into high-quality end-products, including organic fertilizer and insect-based animal feed for Kenyan farmers. Thus the production of our organic fertilizer, called Evergrow, creates a sustainable and inclusive waste management value chain, benefiting both residents of urban slums and farmers across the country.

Thanks to VIA Water’s support, from March 2016 to March 2017, we tested different market entry methods for our organic fertilizer in Kenya. We serve eight counties — Nairobi, Kirinyaga, Meru, Embu, Tharaka Nithii, Machakos, Isiolo and Murang’a — and are eager to gather customer insights to help us better place our product for our main customers: smallholder farmers.

Agriculture is the backbone of the Kenyan economy, with 80% of Kenyans relying on agriculture to make a living, but overall farm productivity is declining every year throughout the country. Most smallholder farmers lack access to good-quality inputs and information to embrace sustainable farming practices. However, they are usually quicker to adopt innovative technologies than large corporate farms, and they represent the majority of agricultural production in Kenya. Leveraging Kenya’s 51% mobile penetration rate by using mobile technology to promote innovative agricultural practices and inputs can therefore offer a solution to tackling productivity declines for smallholder farmers.

To address this, we experimented partnering with an SMS-based learning platform that uses mobile technology to provide beneficiaries with practical educational content and trainings on farming best practices. We chose our provider based on their ability to customize and deliver content, allowing us to develop trainings that meet the needs of our target customers. From this initiative, we wanted to trial a new sales and distribution strategy, while simultaneously building our brand to become Kenya’s premier manufacturer of organic fertilizer.

The system was designed to invite farmers from our partner’s database to access free interactive content on farming best practices. When the farmer receives the invitation SMS, she can choose to interact in order to learn more about the topic. Once she engages with the system, she is led to more educational content and solutions specific to her questions and expressed needs. Periodically throughout the training, the platform offers our organic fertilizer as a solution to increase crop yields and restore soil health.

During the five-month pilot, we invited over 11,000 new farmers to access the content on the system with an introductory SMS. We also invited approximately 1,000 existing clients and prospects from our database to access the content. From the new farmers, approximately 23% accessed the content and explored on average about 25 unique pieces of content within our offering. Unfortunately, only 129 farmers (1%) expressed an interest in being contacted by one of our sales representatives and from those, only 33 (0.03%) were farming target crops in our target areas. We only sold to one individual that accessed our content during the five-month pilot. From our existing clients and prospects, only 5% engaged with the content, which makes the platform an ineffective way to keep our customers engaged after they make a purchase or hear a sales presentation from our team.

In order to understand the discrepancy between our expectations and the results of the trial, we conducted an in-depth user survey to understand the underlying issues that may have limited our success. The survey was conducted by SMS with a sample of 45 users of our content with airtime being offered to all those who completed it. The findings of the survey revealed that while the majority of users were growing our target crops and learned a number of useful lessons in farming, the majority were not farming in our target counties and still did not know what our product was after going through the training. This indicates that while the SMS platform is a useful learning tool, it is much less useful as a selling or lead generation tool. In addition to the insights gleaned from the survey, we also drew a number of our own conclusions based on the results of this experiment.

Targeting is crucial but difficult to do accurately
As our product is new and not distributed outside of our direct sales, we wanted to target customers only in areas where we can deliver our fertilizer. However, we realized that a number of farmers who engaged on the platform and showed interest in the product were outside of the targeted zones. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of offering content through SMS is that there is no easy way to identify the user’s geographic location, which makes targeting difficult. We attempted to address this issue by building in an opt-in question pertaining to farm location, but this was only asked once the farmers expressed interest in our product and did not allow us to send invitations to users only in target areas.

Timing is everything
Smallholder farmers in Kenya tend to buy their farming inputs just before they use them, which means that to have maximum impact, marketing messages should be delivered close to the time of purchase. Most companies targeting farmers growing rain-fed crops allocate their marketing activities and budgets according to the standard growing seasons. Farmers growing horticulture crops using irrigation, however, are more difficult to target at the right time because plantings are spread out throughout the year. While many of the farmers who used our content fit our target criteria when it comes to crops and availability of water, most were likely not planting when they received the SMS invitation. This means that even if they learned about our product at that time, they were not interested in purchasing it then because they would not be able to use it immediately.

Trust and brand awareness are difficult to build through digital channels
Our product is new to the market and represents a new product category and a new approach to managing soil fertility. It is likely that farmers are reluctant to invest in a product they have never seen before and a brand they have never heard of, especially when they have access to traditional alternatives, such as cow manure. We believe that a more established product category and/or brand could succeed in attracting more customers via a mobile platform than what we have been able to achieve.

Attribution of content to brand is not easy when using a shared shortcode or name
Our content and delivery partner on this project serves content from multiple companies, and we found that this created some confusion for users when it comes to correctly identifying the source of the material. We found that a large number of the users we surveyed responded to questions about our content with information that they learned from other agriculture content providers. They even mentioned specific product and brand names from the other content provider when asked to tell us which topics they learned about when accessing our content. This suggests that the use of a shared shortcode or the name of the SMS platform as the sender of content may interfere with building brand awareness and equity with users.

Conclusion and way forward
With the lessons we have learned from this pilot, we have decided not to continue using the SMS learning platform as a means to either generate new leads or engage with our existing clients. We have seen that other approaches to sales and marketing, namely direct sales with in-person after-sale support and the use of reseller agents, are much more effective in generating leads and new clients, as well as meaningful engagement with our existing customer base. During the time period of the trial, we had steady fertilizer sales of 20-40 tons per month from our direct sales channels.

We have found that supporting our farmers in person for one crop cycle after their first purchase makes a large impact on their satisfaction with our product and increases their likelihood of repeat purchase. We have also identified an opportunity to use SMS to build on these in-person support visits, such as by sending weekly relevant tips for the specific stage of the crop growing cycle and bi-weekly short surveys to collect data on how the plot where our product was used is performing compared to the control. In the coming weeks, we will be developing a pilot to evaluate this alternative application of SMS communication with existing clients.