It feels like any question is answerable online. But for small-scale farmers around the world, it's not that simple.
Take the story of Kenyan chicken farmer, Kepha. "There was a disease that was ripping through his flock," says Kenny Ewan, CEO of agricultural startup WeFarm. "He had something like 52 chickens that he kept and half of them had died within the space of a few days."
Kepha's entire livelihood depended on those chickens. And if he couldn't figure out a fix quickly, they were all going to die. "That paid for his kids to go to school," adds Ewan. "To put food on his table."
In the past, farmers like Kepha had to rely on visits to the local market to ask fellow farmers for answers to tricky farming problems. If that didn't work, they could ask local extension officers, agricultural experts funded privately or by the government. But these officers work with up to 20,000 farmers, so farmers getting face time with them is extremely rare.
Luckily, Kepha didn't have to use any of those routes. In fact, he didn't even have to step outside his own farm.
WeFarm provides a simple question-and-answer platform for farmers in developing nations.
"What we do is crowdsourcing of vital information for small-scale farmers, primarily that don't have access to the internet," says Ewan. "They can ask a question on anything that’s happening on their farm, and we get them the right answer from somewhere else in the world without them having to leave their farm, spend any money, or have any access to the internet."
All any farmer has to do is text their question to a local WeFarm number, which is free. From there, WeFarm's tech automatically analyzes the message based on location, keywords, and theme to find and notify the best farmers in their network that can answer the question. Once those helpful farmers reply with an answer, it goes straight back to the farmer in need.
"It's a really great service," said Kepha on the WeFarm website. "You ask a question and in less than 10 minutes you have an answer. It has also motivated me in farming knowing that other farmers are out there doing similar things."
To date, over 147,000 registered farmers have shared over 19 million messages. And the effects have been life-changing.
Just look at how WeFarm helped Kepha. "He got advice back really quickly from another farmer that had the same disease, recommending things he could do and medicine he could use," says Ewan. "He managed to save just under half of his chickens and keep his flock going."
Granted, Kepha is just one farmer with a small batch of chickens. But when you focus on the grander scheme of things, what WeFarm is doing has the potential to affect agriculture worldwide.
"Statistics suggest that up to70% of all the food we eat on Earth is grown by small-scale farmers," adds Ewan. "With our hugely expanding population, that’s only going to get tougher."
Plus, with roughly 500 million small-scale farm families around the world living on less than $1 a day, providing them with meaningful solutions that cost nothing is crucial.
WeFarm's next big step? Reach a network of 1 million farmers and become the world's go-to agricultural guide.
Currently, WeFarm is only available in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru. But they have their sights set on Tanzania, India, and Brazil next. In time, WeFarm hopes to be available in every country.
But more than just a Q&A platform, WeFarm is also aiming to build stronger and more personal relationships. "If a farmer asked us about planting a specific crop," adds Ewan, "we can automatically compare their location to a weather report to tell them, 'Actually, don't do that tomorrow. Do it next week.'"
"That would be the ultimate vision. To be the ultimate source of agricultural information."
Unlocking this untapped wealth of grassroots knowledge could make a huge difference in improving global food access.
In fact, the world has already taken notice. WeFarm was one of the grand prize winners at the prestigious Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. They've also been tapped as one of the world's most innovative companies by Fast Company.
As amazing as these honors are, WeFarm's greatest achievement is still the work they do. "As we face new challenges like climate change and diseases and things that we've never seen before starting to affect crops all over the world," explains Ewan, "unlocking the knowledge that can deal with that on a practical grassroots level is fundamental in making sure that we can keep food sources available."
"That is going to be crucial in helping to feed the world."