Precision Ag for smallholder farmers: reaching almost 500,000 via phones and 9 million via TV in Kenya


The majority of farmers in Sub Saharan Africa practice rain-fed agriculture. They do not use irrigation so are at the mercy of the rains. PlantVillage farmers in Busia County, Kenya experienced significant hardship at the start of the long rains in 2019 (March). The twin cyclones of Idai and Kenneth which hit Mozambique (March 14th and April 25th) removed moisture from the atmosphere above Kenya and Uganda reducing the volume of rain that fell. Increased numbers of cyclones is a consequence due to higher sea surface temperatures. These cyclones bring immediate devastation to farms in their path. Or when they affect rainfall patterns as happened in 2019. Cyclones are also played a major role in the 2020 locust upsurge.

In 2019 many of the farmers planting maize simply had no germination of the seed and had to re-sow seeds. For extremely poor farmers this was a considerable hardship. In some cases the second seeds sown also failed. 

Some farmers who planted maize earlier saw their crop stop growing.  You can watch Roseline Akochi, one of our lead farmers discuss this in the video below.  


What was very clear was that farmers needed hyperlocal advice to enable climate change adaptation. PlantVillage therefore partnered with Mediae Company who produce a very popular TV show for farmers, Shamba Shape Up,  to deliver climate change advice. And with their offshoot company, iShamba to send messages out via SMS. This work was enabled by PlantVillage's excellent and ongoing collaboration with Mercy Corps AgriFin. 

Climate Smart advice reaching 9 million people weekly

Shamba Shape Up is East Africa’s leading agricultural TV program. The program is a reality make-over show filmed on smallholder farms addressing the problems of the farmers to increase production and encouraging farming as a business in Kenya and Tanzania. It’s broadcast on national TV stations in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and on DSTV and a number of free to air digital channels reaching over 12 million viewers each week in both countries in English, Swahili and Luganda over half the year. 

PlantVillage uses data from CHIRPS and the Climate Hazard Center to create weather maps for the entire country together with the Kenya Meteorological Service that is shown each week. The weather data is interpreted in form of the amount of rainfall expected and drought severity. The weather maps generated shows the expected rainfall amount. Here is a sample of map generated.

 Here is an example of videos that goes out.

What Shamba Shape up does so well is recording the changes a farmer can do on their farm. They invite experts like extension officers, Universities,  PlantVillage, CGIAR and FAO to visit the farm and show farmers the best approaches. People watching this at home learn very well when they see other farmers following the advice. Here is a show the features Climate Smart Agriculture advice from FAO.

What is also nice is that Shamba Shape Up have a hotline farmers can join for weekly alerts or to request more information. This is iShamba which we discuss next.

iShamba: hyperlocal advice for >500,000

The iShamba hotline has roughly over 500,000 users across Kenya. The farmers sign up for iShamba by sending the word JOIN to 21606 and prompt SMS will be sent to the farmer asking for the following details: Please SMS your Name, School near you, Ward, County, Land Size, Phone type (basic, smartphone) Crop/Livestock farmed. Alternatively farmers can register by dialling *384*101010#. 

It is not possible to get a GPS link from a feature phone but when farmers sign up iShamba asks them their nearest primary school and ward.This enables us to get within a few kilometers. 

Using the CHIRPS data set and detailed discussions with Dr. Chris Funk of the Climate Hazards Group we were able to use the historical and forecasted precipitation data at the spatial resolution of 5km to deliver three key numbers to each farmer.  

  • How much rain was fallen during historical Short Rain seasons in similar years
  • How much rain has fallen so far in this Short Rain season 
  • How much is expected for the next 10 days. 

PlantVillage sends the weather data to iSamba in form of SMS indicating the amount of rainfall expected. iShamba then sends farmers weather forecast SMS based on specific geo-location within a radious of 5-9 KM. See below. 


In the Long Rains of 2022 we sent 8.8million SMS messages.

We are working with iShamba to also collect the timing of planting and the type of crop planted. With this, we can be very specific and provide advice on how much water the crop needs at any point in the cycle. We will combine this with a risk prediction on pests for that crop and information on the soil conditions. We are developing advanced approaches in machine learning which we will detail on a separate page soon. 

We also are following up with telephone calls to ask farmers what they think. The early feedback is excellent. Here is an example of reply.

                              I was able to plan my short Rain season, when to plant and spray


But for now, it is clear hyper-local data is possible for the smallholder farmer at scale. And it is cheap!  Sending 350,000 messages a week costs just $1,800.


iShamba Weather Forecast Impacts Farming in Kenya

In 2022, PlantVillage partnered with iShamba to conduct climate change surveys in Kenya. More than 4000 farmers across multiple counties were asked how they used the weather forecast SMS and how it benefited them.

Farmers reported that the SMS program helped them in organizing their agricultural activities in accordance with choosing the optimal seed type and using the best farming techniques in light of weather forecats and climate change.

Out of the 4272 farmers that responded to the survey, 3577 said that the forecast helped them whereas 605 farmers said the forecast did not help them. 13 farmers said they didn't have use of the forecast because they have livestock. Of 3577 farmers that said the forecast helped them, about 51% of the farmers said the forecast helped them plant on time. Farmers said the forecast helped them prepare their land early to plant on time. 23.15% of the farmers said the forecast helped them plan farm activities. Some farmers planned on when to irrigate, apply chemicals, top dress, and other things based on the forecast. 22.59% of the farmers said the forecast helped them to decide what to plant. Some farmers decided to change crop, or seed varieties based on the forecast they received. 3.27% of farmers said the forecast helped them to get farm inputs early for the planting season. 



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