SOAS students collaborate with African farming app

farming; agriculture

Two postgraduate SOAS students are helping to translate an app into Swahili – alongside completing their degrees. Josh Dowley and Emma Hooper are collaborating with the FarmSmart app, which aims to provide farmers with knowledge and skills around crop rotation. We caught up with Josh to find out how he balances working for Farmsmart whilst studying, and to ask him about the challenges of the translation project.

Josh Dowley

Hi Josh! Tell us about the FarmSmart app.

FarmSmart is an agri-tech company founded by Alia Malik in 2018. Through a free mobile app we are providing expert-knowledge on sustainable agriculture to smallholder farmers, primarily in Africa. The app experience delivers tailored crop recommendations according to factors such as location and soil type, step-by-step cultivation guides for all skill levels, profit and loss tracker, local pest and disease management information and WhatsApp integrations to connect farmers to one another. All app content is climate-smart and promotes environmental awareness. 

FarmSmart’s purpose is to provide the knowledge smallholder farmers need to allow both their crops and their businesses to thrive. Additionally, FarmSmart aims to support youth entrepreneurship in agriculture. In Africa, where a recent UN report identifies 70% of youth are living on $2 a day or less, it is vital to provide opportunities for self-sufficient employment in agriculture. The FarmSmart app provides the tools, agricultural knowledge and market resources that allow young entrepreneurs to establish their own self-sufficient business. 

‘FarmSmart’s aim is to not merely sustain people above the poverty line, but rather turn farmers into entrepreneurs’ (Alia Malik, Founder)  

The app was developed in partnership with leading tech consultants, Amido, using the latest in cloud-native technology. A unique interactive chat-bot collects information from the user that is then used to drive the crop recommendations algorithm. Every subsequent feature of the app is interactive and designed to immerse the user in an autonomous step-by-step learning experience.  The FarmSmart app is leveraging the tech revolution in Africa to provide an alternative to conventional approaches of boosting agricultural productivity and supporting smallholder farmers. 

The FarmSmart app

You and Emma are working on translating the app into Swahili – why is this important?

 The ability to choose a Swahili experience makes our content significantly more accessible for Kenyan farmers. As mentioned, FarmSmart’s purpose is to support smallholder farmers by providing step-by-step training with tailored crop recommendations and market knowledge. Yet, many rural farmers either do not speak English or are able to speak English but cannot read it. To only release an English version of the app would drastically limit the number of farmers who are able to take advantage of the app. Language should not be an obstacle standing in the way of using sustainable agriculture. SOAS’s contribution is helping to ensure such an obstacle does not exist in FarmSmart’s Kenya rollout. We are incredibly grateful for the work done by SOAS and Kenyatta University students and academics as part of this translation partnership. The value of extending FarmSmart to Swahili speaking farmers in Kenya cannot be overstated. 


Who makes up the partnership in the Swahili translation project? Who are you working with?

We were partnered with both SOAS and Kenyatta University for the Swahili Translation project. At SOAS we worked primarily with the Department of African Studies and the Centre for Translation Studies. Students studying Swahili at SOAS and Kenyatta University formed the main translation body. Students used their expertise and studies to translate the app content into Swahili. Their work was overseen by leading academics at SOAS and Kenyatta University, but remained very much student-led. We were so pleased to have students take the lead in this partnership because it has given them work experience for their CVs and valuable insights into agri-tech. 

What are your roles in the project? Describe some of the tasks, challenges and successes.

My role is App Coordinator, which at a start-up involves a little bit of everything! However, I primarily work on our partner portfolio. I liaise with NGO’s and agricultural organisations to introduce them to FarmSmart, talk with them about how technology can improve their farmer outreach programmes and if all goes well, form new partnerships. I also run our social media accounts. Building a social media following as a start-up with limited resources and funds is a challenging task. Though I am thrilled to say that our founder, Alia Malik, is going to be interviewed for the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s monthly podcast Farms. Food. Future. The opportunity for Alia to discuss FarmSmart’s work on a United Nations platform is truly exciting for us.


You’re currently doing a Masters at SOAS – what are you studying? 

I am studying a Master’s degree in Violence, Conflict & Development with the Development Studies Department, though I am very nearly finished! I have only my dissertation left to submit this September, which I am writing on how sacred nature belief systems in traditional African religions affected the violence of guerrilla fighters in the Liberian and Zimbabwean civil wars. 


How do you balance working for FarmSmart and studying at SOAS?

I joined the FarmSmart team fairly late on in my SOAS studies so there has never been any serious clashes, luckily. The coursework-centred structure of my course, as well as the flexibility of SOAS staff regarding tutorials and dissertation meetings, has also made it easy to thread FarmSmart work around my academic studies. FarmSmart is also still in its early stages as a start-up. This allows the team to work very flexibly around our other commitments. I have my Master’s degree, Emma is doing a PhD with SOAS on top of full-time consultancy work and Alia works full-time at the Better Cotton Initiative. Often FarmSmart work is consigned to late nights and weekends, particularly for Alia and Emma. Though I can confidently say that we all enjoy the start-up environment and will always find time to commit to FarmSmart and its growth. 


How has your time at SOAS helped you develop skills that you can utilise at FarmSmart?

The emphasis placed by SOAS academics on presentation skills has been invaluable for my FarmSmart work. Across all my modules, both in the Development Department and others like the Anthropology Department, tutorials were led by student presentations on the topic of that week, followed by questions and discussion. Preparing and delivering these online presentations has given me transferrable skills that I use frequently at FarmSmart. When I am liaising with agricultural NGO’s and organisations I am essentially delivering a presentation that summarises FarmSmart as clearly as possible. The foundation in coherent online presentations that SOAS has given allows me to present FarmSmart more intelligibly. 


What are your plans for the future – for FarmSmart, personally and career-wise?

Our plan for FarmSmart is to rollout the app to as many countries, in as many languages, supporting as many smallholder farmers, as possible. One of FarmSmart’s key visions is to build a global network of connected smallholder farmers. Needless to say that is no easy task. We are currently seeking new partnerships and funding that will allow us to carry out this type of expansion. 

My own career plans for the future are to stay with FarmSmart for as long as is feasible. I am confident that agri-tech systems will gradually replace conventional methods of boosting agricultural productivity. By onboarding sustainable agriculture training and expert knowledge to tech platforms, like the FarmSmart app, information becomes more accessible for smallholder farmers and more communicable for agricultural organisations who are trying to reach their rural farmers. Agri-tech has the potential to transform smallholder farmer livelihoods and farmer outreach programmes. I hope to continue working on FarmSmart to make this transformation a reality. Plus, because FarmSmart is an agri-tech company it is possible to work from anywhere in the world, so who knows where it will take me! 

Find out more about FarmSmart.

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