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For These Small Farmers, a Cellphone Can Make a World of a Difference

Each week we’ve been bringing you smartphone apps that make it easier to be a Global Citizen — downloadable apps and messenger bots that tell you how to attend protests, or translate documents for refugees, or shop for sustainable food

This week, we’re focusing on the role of a technology much more simple than the smartphone: the cell phone.

In parts of the world where iPhones are not ubiquitous and internet service can be spotty or non-existent, old school cell phones can be a lifesaver. 

The World Bank has found that global internet penetration (the percentage of people who have accessed the internet in the past 12 months) is less than 45%. That means that for more than half the world, smartphones with internet access don’t actually do much good. 

Read more: 11 Tech Innovations Changing Global Education

In a place with limited internet infrastructure, the spread of information tends to happen through word of mouth, which is cumbersome, especially when you work in a profession like farming — where conditions (like weather) are variable and you need to be able to quickly adapt to new and better techniques. 

That’s where WeFarm comes in. WeFarm is a peer-to-peer messenger app that requires nothing more than a basic cellphone (and 90% of small farmholders do have access to this) that can send and receive SMS text messages. 

The service pairs farmers in two African countries — Uganda and Kenya — and Peru who lack internet access but do have a cellphone, with other farmers, researchers, and scientists who can impart knowledge and answer specific questions about farming techniques.

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The WeFarm site shows a live feed of real-time questions and responses, including questions like: “which is the best way to control weeds in a coffee plantation?” and “how often should I irrigate my tomatoes in this dry spell?” 

What makes WeFarm so effective is its combination of simplicity and its attention to detail. 

For example, interactions between farmers who don’t speak the same language are outsourced to university-level translators who speak four languages (English, Spanish, Swahili, French). And site monitors ensure that the app is not co-opted by users looking for dating advice and matchmaking services. 

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The non-profit Cafédirect Producers' Foundation launched WeFarm in February of 2015. One year later, 43,000 farmers had signed up for the service, according to Wired. That number has more than tripled since — with 141,000 users on the platform, according to Fast Company

It has plans to expand to other countries, according to Wired, including India, Brazil, and Colombia. 

As it continues to grow, it will showcase the power and promise of a diffuse global network of small farmers — a big step toward leveling a playing field that is slanted steeply against them.