East Africa: AI Chatbot Proves to Be a Useful Teacher in Farming and Agronomy

10 September 2020

With a platform known as Arifu, farmers and rural entrepreneurs from Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Uganda are learning about finances and agronomy by texting an interactive Chatbot.

With technology rapidly advancing the way it is, the infusion of Artificial Intelligence into major sectors is underway. This comes at a time where the word AI is no longer just a buzzword, but a real-life, unfolding reality.

Messaging remains on the pedestal as one of the most popular methods of communication, whether it's through text messages or messaging apps. Arifu though, provides an extra twist to this aspect, imagine texting, but now getting information and feedback from your phone without subscribing to internet or using airtime.

A chatbot is a computer program that simulates human conversation through voice commands or text chats or both. The chatbot responds to standard questions immediately, at any time of the day. If a learner needs to ask a question in the middle of the night, a chatbot can answer them within seconds.

This has improved the efficiency of businesses across the world through streamlining communication with consumers. In Africa, however, the technology is transforming education, farming, and rural entrepreneurship by making it easy for organisations to pass knowledge and skills to masses through basic phones.

One user, Janet Kanyua, is a 45-year-old mother and farmer who keeps dairy cows, rears chicken, and grows beans and maize in Imenti Central, Meru. She started the small scale farming activities after finishing her secondary education.

As with most Kenya's rural small-scale farmers, she often struggled to sustain growth due to obstacles such as limited access to finance to purchase quality farming inputs, limited access to knowledge on good agricultural practices, and appropriate technologies.

Then she discovered Arifu. "I saw a TV advertisement about a way where I would learn about farming using my basic phone by texting a question and I would get a reply. I dialed the number. I have trained with them for about three years. I learn about cows and rearing Kienyeji chicken," she said.

She started learning about animal husbandry and later advanced to crop farming and finances. Now Janet has turned her dairy farming into a business.

"Earlier I did not know about cross-breeding and that there is a specific fertiliser for maize and one for cereals. I was just buying DAP and mixing it with soil. I used to do mixed farming but on my phone, I have learned that it is not the best. I never used to make a lot of money," she said.

According to Craig Heintzman, the co-founder and CEO of Arifu, many farm households and small scale rural entrepreneurs lack access to the credible information and tools they need to manage and improve their earnings.

But there's a way to reach them: In Kenya specifically, 62 percent of the country's population of 49 million have access to mobile phones. The downside is millions are without the internet nor smartphones and hence cannot access the Web or social media to learn new skills.

This is where Arifu comes in. In 2015, Canadian National and Business Graduate Heintzman launched a platform where people access free educational content from helpful sources and credible organisations over any mobile phone.

Mr Heintzman and his team developed a simple SMS chatbot accessible by any phone on the market via SMS, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

"If you create a website you will still not reach them as they do not have a computer or a smartphone. Arifu is engaging, entertaining, and free so people can afford to use it," he said.

The company is headquartered in Nairobi. Arifu has worked with banks, mobile operators, agribusinesses, Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), and NGOs such as Syngenta, Mobigrow Kenya Commercial bank (KCB), Equity Bank, Digi Farm by Safaricom, Vodacom, CGAP, TechnoServe, and the Kenyan government to spread skills training and product information to the underserved segment of the population.

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