My first trip to Kenya was in 2006. Packed in my bags was a trusty Nokia mobile phone. I had been told I could get a local SIM card to make phone calls and send text messages. And indeed, this worked. Network coverage was better in Nairobi than in rural areas but at the time it didn’t matter. I could reach a few people when it was necessary and that was good enough. I saw some farmers with phones but they weren’t widespread. Safaricom had yet to introduce M-PESA, which would come the following year and completely revolutionalize the mobile industry while also demonstrating a powerful value proposition for using and owning a phone. Earlier this year, a little more than ten years since my first visit, I returned to Kenya in support of what Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) is doing with USAID’s Digital Development for Feed the Future initiative, to interview staff at One Acre Fund about the digital tools and services the organization was integrating into its program. As I stepped off the plane in Kisumu I turned on my smartphone and while waiting for it to connect, considered how much had changed in a relatively short period of time.
In 2006, Kenya had about 5 million cellular phone subscribers, roughly a 20% mobile penetration rate (Energypedia). At the time, more Kenyans had access to a phone than owned one. The most recent data from GSMA (201 7) indicates there are now an estimated 36.3 million mobile connections in Kenya, equivalent to about 78% of the population (GSMA Intelligence 2015). The number of unique mobile subscribers in 2014 was estimated at 42% of the population, with very little difference in subscriber penetration between men and women: 44 and 41% respectively (GSMA 2015b). Introduced shortly after my first visit, over half the population now uses M-PESA at least once a month, with men and women using the service with the same frequency. Safaricom has since built a range of additional financial products and services to allow users to save, receive loans, and pay for goods and services from over 36,000 merchants. This digital landscape offers immense opportunity for innovation, one that One Acre Fund is taking advantage of.
Coincidentally, One Acre Fund began operations in 2006, with a focus on increasing the profits of 40 farm families earned from their fields by providing them with financing for high-quality agricultural inputs and non-agricultural products. The organization has since grown to serve over 445,000 farmers across six countries in East and Southern Africa. In Kenya alone, the organization now serves more than 200,000 farmers. A deep commitment to innovation drives this expansion. The organization uses a multi-year phased process to test new products and services that can deepen impact, measured via increased yields and farm profit; enhance scale, with a focus on increasing the number of farmers served in each area; and improve the financial sustainability for the organization.
The innovation process has led One Acre Fund (OAF) to adopt and explore a range of digital tools and services that have increased efficiency, streamlined processes, and identified productivity-enhancing options for farmers. Consider for example:
- In 2014, OAF digitized its loan repayment system by integrating it with M-PESA. The process reduced the time it takes a farmer to know that her loan has been received from 16 days to 48 hours. Additionally, it fundamentally changed the role of Field Officers who, prior to using M-PESA, spent 214 minutes per week on repayment activities, compared to 116 minutes with MPesa (a nearly 50 percent decrease). This allows FOs to spend more time delivering farm trainings and marketing products.
- OAF is using infrared spectroscopy to analyze soil quality among its client farmers to be able to provide tailored soil health recommendations to farmers. With geospatial data on soil health and client fields, OAF will be able to nudge certain farmers to purchase specific fertilizer blends or additional products, like lime, that can counteract poor soil quality and improve yields.
- Supporting this innovation is a strong monitoring and evaluation system that in 2014 moved to mobile data collection and analysis. The switch to mobile data collection was considered a ‘no-brainer’ given that OAF handles between 40 and 50 million data points about its clients and activities.
While I have written before about the benefits of extending the reach of digital tools and services to farmers, I had not spent much time thinking about the innovation processes and organizations that bring digital tools and services to market. The spread of mobile technologies and expansion of digital infrastructure allows organizations like OAF to reach farmers more efficiently and effectively. Digital tools reduce barriers and distance to markets, lower transaction costs, improve feedback and communication among actors, and enhance yields. Through my conversations with the staff and field officers of One Acre Fund, I came to understand the potential for digital innovations to accelerate the achievement of agricultural development goals, and appreciate the organizations who are finding ways to introduce small, and sometimes big, digital innovations that will empower farmers to lead more productive and resilient lives.
To learn more about One Acre Fund and their support from Feed the Future check out the longer case study.
Cristina Manfre is a Senior Associate with Cultural Practice, LLC where she provides practical and actionable advice to implementing organizations, agricultural researchers, and practitioners on how to address gender issues in the design, monitoring, and evaluation of international development programs. She brings over a decade of experience and knowledge to focus on gender issues linked to aspects of economic growth, with an emphasis on agriculture and food security including extension and advisory services, value chain development, information and communication technologies, and capacity building.
 To understand how to measure mobile penetration, please see: https://www.gsmaintelligence.com/research/2014/05/measuring-mobile-penetration/430/.
 One Acre Fund is operating in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda.
 In 2012, USAID/Kenya awarded two grants to OAF (totaling an estimated $3.5 million), through the Global Development Alliance and the Development Grants Program, to scale up operations in Kenya.
Photo Credit: Caitlin Nordehn, Kenya, 2012