Our latest “Food for 9 Billion” story, on the effort to bring business services to small-scale farmers in Africa, airs today on PBS NewsHour.

The story takes a look at the work that One Acre Fund and the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange are doing, but there are many innovators who are tackling the challenges that smallholder farmers in Africa face. Some of the most exciting work is happening at the crossroads of technology and agricultural development. Many of the startups have been founded by Africans and use software applications and cellphones to provide farmers with real-time access to information. With half of the population across Africa owning a cellphone, text message-based services – providing money transfers, commodity pricing or weather reports – have become the quickest and most efficient way to democratize information in rural communities. 

If you want to check out some of work being done by African technologists, the Apps4Africa Climate Challenge awards competition is a great place to start. One of the recent award recipients was a Kenyan-based group, Mkulima Calculator (Mkulima means “farmer” in Swahili), that uses climate data to help farmers figure out which crops to plant and when. Another winner was Farmerline, which provides farmers with automated text message alerts and runs a call-in helpline. In the old days, before government budgets for agriculture were slashed, agricultural extension officers were on hand to give farmers critical advice on things like eradicating pests or disease, the best times to plant certain crops, and how to access government loans or subsidies. With a program like Farmerline, these services are restored, but with a high-tech twist: Farmers call in their questions to a toll-free number, agricultural extension officers respond via a Web interface, and the answers are sent as text messages. Simple, cheap and fast. 

Women dominate the smallholder farmer landscape in Africa, so it’s exciting to see a software and agribusiness company that was founded by female entrepreneurs. Started by Jamila Abass of Kenya, M-Farm is a mobile-phone service that sends out market information, including the best deals on local agro-supplies. It also brings farmers together to buy or sell in groups, so they’re able to access larger markets – a link in the chain usually dominated by middlemen who take a cut of the price.  

This is just a sampling of the work being done, but wherever you look across the continent, the intersection of low-cost technology, more funding for social entrepreneurs and the urgent needs of smallholders is inspiring some very creative and immediate solutions to support the farmers who feed a growing planet.

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Cassandra Herrman

Cassandra Herrman is a documentary producer and videographer who has filmed in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America and the U.S. Her work in Africa has included stories about human rights conditions in Zimbabwe, the singer Fela Kuti in Nigeria, female runners in Kenya and the humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. Her films have been nominated for two national Emmy awards. Cassandra is currently a series producer for "Food for 9 Billion," a yearlong project by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions, PBS NEWSHOUR and American Public Media's Marketplace.