Nearly 60-million children in Africa suffer from nutritional stunting caused by lack of access to proper nutrition. This key health epidemic is one of the things Kenyan start-up iCow hopes to help solve by upskilling animal farmers in East Africa using simple SMS messages.
“59-million children struggle to reach their potential, their genetic potential, because they don’t get enough protein when they are growing up,” iCow founder Su Kahumbu Stephanou told TEDGlobal in Arusha, Tanzania.
Growing children need a range of essential amino acids to provide the right nutrition for the development of their bodies and minds. “They are called essential because can’t synthesize them ourselves,” she says. The best source of these are from animals (such as milk, eggs and meat) but most protein in Africa is from vegetables because so much farming is crop-based. “iCow is hoping to solve by enabling smallholder farmers to be more efficient.”
Because most farmers have basic feature phones, Stephanou chose SMS to communicate with farmers, sending them three messages a week. “We teach farmers best livestock practices and we see increased productivity in three months,” she says.
“We are literally drip-feeding manuals into farmer’s SMS feed,” she told me in an interview. “We didn’t know they were doing it. We realized and built that into the network.”
This remarkable service has evolved into so much more because these weekly SMSes have evolved into an archive of advice and learning that can be consulted later.
She is part of the remarkable TED Fellow program, which “provides transformational support to a global network of 400 visionaries – scientists, artists, activists, entrepreneurs, doctors, journalists and investors – who collaborate across disciplines to create positive change around the world”.
iCow now has about 50,000-60,000 farmers using the system, of which some 20-30% are in Tanzania and Ethiopia where the messages are paid for by various government and aid programs.
Stephanou has launched a new crowd-funding initiative so that willing donors can buy a year’s worth of messages for farmers called iCow Global. For $15 a year, anyone can buy an annual subscription giving farmers lessons in climate change, poultry and dairy farming, as well as how to make their soil more sustainable.
iCow hopes to provide the education she told me most farmers never receive. “We call farmers for lack of a better word. They are not trained and their average age is 36. The last time they had any formal education was when they were 12-13yearss old,” she says her research has found. “And they are expected to feed a nation.”
There is an additional cost borne by the poorest farmers in African society, with many smallholder farmers also suffering from infections caused by zoonotic diseases they get from their proximity to animals. These cause 2.2-million deaths a year while a further 2,4-million are infected, she says.
“The greatest burden of zoonosis fall on 1-billion poor livestock keepers. We totally underestimate poor livestock farmers. They pretty much underpin our existence but most lack knowledge on livestock disease.”
“It sounds pretty gloomy doesn’t it?” she told the TEDGlobal audience, “but we’re changing that narrative using innovative solutions like SMS and iCow.”
She adds: “Knowledge doesn’t need to be expensive.Knowledge can be a low-cost intervention. We have the power in our hands to make sure livestock production systems are profitable and safe. We are working with smallholder farmers to make sure that each and every child has potential to reach their full genetic potential. We should be able to bring a halt to stunting in Africa.”