An SMS “kickstart” for Kenyan farmers

In this, the fifteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Rita Kiloo – Customer Care Executive at KickStart in Kenya – describes how their use of the software enables them to extend and improve their outreach efforts among rural farmers in the country

“KickStart’s mission is to help millions of people out of poverty. We do this by promoting sustainable economic growth and employment creation in Kenya and other countries, and by developing and promoting technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises.

In 1998 we developed a line of manually operated MoneyMaker Irrigation Pumps that allow farmers to easily pull water from a river, pond or shallow well (as deep as 25 feet), pressurize it through a hose pipe (even up a hill) and irrigate up to two acres of land. Our pumps are easy to transport and install and retail between $35 and $95. They are easy to operate and, because they are pressurized, they allow farmers to direct water where it is needed. It is a very efficient use of water, and unlike flood irrigation, does not lead to the build up of salts in the soil.

Photo courtesy KickStart, Kenya

With irrigation, farmers can grow crops year-round. They can grow higher value crops like fruits and vegetables, get higher yields (the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that irrigation increases crop yield by 100-400%) and most importantly, they can produce crops in the dry seasons when food supplies dwindle and the market prices are high. Because of the long dry seasons and growing population, there is potential for many thousands of farmers to start irrigating without flooding the market. There are local, urban and even export markets for the new crops.

A few months ago we decided to start using text messaging as part of our outreach efforts to farmers, and had heard good things about FrontlineSMS. Basically, we now receive lists of mobile numbers of prospective clients from our sales teams – these are clients who have visited our dealer shops countrywide, and who have shown an interest in our irrigation pumps. They usually leave their contact details with the sales people at the shop.

At the end of every month I receive a copy of the contact lists from at least 70 sales people, which may total about 5,000 contacts. I randomly pick around 500 to 1,000 mobile numbers and put these into an Excel spreadsheet. Once this is done, the numbers are uploaded into FrontlineSMS and we send out a uniform SMS to prospective buyers of the pumps. Here is a sample of the kinds of messages we send out:

Kumbuka kununua pampu ya kunyunyiza mimea ya MoneyMaker. Kwa maelezo zaidi, piga simu kwa 0725-xxxxxx

(“Remember to buy the MoneyMaker pump for irrigating your crops. For more details, kindly call 0725-xxxxxx”)

The texts are scheduled for every week of the month, and are categorized into territories, allowing us to keep track of the areas where the interest is coming from. There are a number of advantages in using FrontlineSMS, one of the main ones being that I am able to reach more farmers through SMS than I would be able to by calling them one-by-one. We are also able to keep in more regular contact with interested farmers, and remind them about the pumps. Not all of them buy pumps straight away”.

Rita Kiloo
Customer Care Executive
KickStart Kenya Program

Dilemmas of innovation and invisibility

Northern Zambia, August 1993. We set off from Chilubula – where we were helping build a school – for another village a couple of hours away. They didn’t have a school. They didn’t seem to have much, in fact. As our pick-up approached, children ran out to greet us, throwing themselves onto their knees. Many of them saw us as saviours, visitors from afar who had the power to build them schools, drill them wells and change their lives in unimaginable ways.

While some people enjoyed the attention, for me it was an uncomfortable experience. It may be hard to not be the “white man in Africa” when you’re white and in Africa, but that doesn’t mean you have to behave like one. Humility is lacking in so many walks of life, yet a lack of it seemed even more misguided in the environment in which we’d found ourselves.

Since then, on my many trips – they’ve ranged from as brief as a week to as long as a year – I always grapple with visibility, the feeling that whatever we do it should never be about us. How do we facilitate the change we want to see without being so totally central to it? I remember Jerry, a colleague at a primate sanctuary in Nigeria where I worked in 2002, towing me along to meetings with government officials because “white faces opened doors”. I always went along, but insisted he did all the talking. They were his plans, his ideas, and it would have been wrong for me to take any of the credit for them.

Jerry organised an incredible environment day in Calabar that year. He’s managed to do the same every year since. The doors thankfully stayed open. Job done, perhaps.


The dilemma of visibility has been with me from the very beginning – 1993 – and I still grapple with it today. I don’t have the answer, but I do know that putting end-users first at every opportunity is the right thing for me to do. Create tools that enable other people to head off in any direction they choose increases the distance between me and their solution. That’s what they want – independence, empowerment on their terms, credit for their actions – and doing it this way gives a little of the invisibility we seek, too.

Not having intimate knowledge of every single thing FrontlineSMS users are doing with the software may be a challenge when it comes to funding and reporting, but it has everything to do with trust, respect and genuine empowerment. It’s not until you try to do something like this that you realise how difficult it is to achieve. I don’t think enough people really know how to “let go”. Too much innovation and too much noise still centres around the technology and not in the approach. Maybe it’s time we saw a little “innovation in the way we innovate”.

Development is littered with contradictions, and my work is no exception. These things still trouble me, but at least I believe we’re on the right path – not just technically, but more importantly, spiritually.

CNN on anthropology and innovation


“As trained observers of how people in a society live, ethnographers can help companies figure out what people need and then work with designers to meet those needs with new (or more often tweaked) products and services. In a world in which ever more people are using technology products on a daily basis, such skills are increasingly in demand. For ethnographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists, the upshot can be intriguing work around the globe”

Read more about the role of field-based research and anthropology in the identification and design of mobile tools, products and services in this latest CNN article. There’s more in our PC World column, published last July. And an interesting new course in Digital Anthropology at University College London in the UK.

Interesting times. Get out in the field, or study anthropology. That seems to be the message.