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Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

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."


Image via Pixabay.

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."

A WeFarm ambassador showing a local farmer the ropes. Image via WeFarm, used with permission.

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."

Image via WeFarm, used with permission.

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 to 70% 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.

Image via iStock.

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.'"

A WeFarm training session for local farmers in Uganda. Image via WeFarm, used with permission.

"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.

Image via iStock.

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."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

via Pexels

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