Rita Kimani, 25, is one of the young leaders designated by the United Nations to help promote the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) among fellow youth. Through her initiative, FarmDrive, Rita is using data analytics and mobile phone technology to connect smallholder farmers with lending institutions in rural Kenya. She spoke to Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau about her project.
Question: Why were you selected to attend this event at the UN?
Kimani: I am here as one of the young leaders advocating for the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s really the work I do. I co-founded a company called FarmDrive that helps local farmers in Kenya obtain credit. So, I am here to help bring the youth’s voice in designing programmes for engaging the youth, specifically in the agricultural sector.
You said you founded FarmDrive. What really is it?
FarmDrive is a data analytics company developing alternative credit scoring models to benefit smallholder farmers. We’ve developed a mobile phone app which rural farmers can use to track their revenues and expenses, as well as apply for loans. We combine the farm-level data we get from the farmers with big datasets – like weather, climate, economic, and satellite data – to generate a credit score which financial institutions then use to lend to the farmers.
What made you venture into this technology?
I grew up in a farming community in Turbo, about three hundred km northwest of the capital, Nairobi, where most families grow maize. When I started university, I met my co-founder PerisBosire on our first day on campus. We both studied computer science, but connected more because of our similar backgrounds growing up in farming communities. We brainstormed about how we could use technology to solve some of the farmers’ problems we saw or experienced first-hand. That’s how we ended up founding FarmDrive during our last year of university in 2014.
Who gives the farmers the credit?
We work with various financial institutions that give credit to small-scale farmers in Kenya. For the farmers who sign up with us, the loan application process is quite simple. They complete a short survey on the app, we analyze the complexities along with external data, and come up with a credit score for each farmer. We then give the information to various financial institutions to enable them to make informed lending decisions. We also make recommendations on how much credit we think a farmer could afford, and propose terms of payment. So in short, we’re helping financial institutions assess risk and create good products so that they can better lend to smallholder farmers.
What numbers are you working with?
We have registered 3,000 farmers so far. Out of this, about 400 have accessed credit through us since December 2015. We have clients in 16 counties in Kenya out of the total 47. The majority of them are in horticulture, poultry, dairy or maize farming. Our goal is to reach 100,000 farmers.
What makes FarmDrive a unique product?
You know that farmers in Kenya, and Africa at large, do not have quite a footprint in the financial sector. They are either underbanked or unbanked. We call them “thin file.” If you try to get any information about them in the formal financial sector, you will not get much, considering the methods that financial institutions use to give credit—such as requiring a credit history or bank statement, and many times collateral. But that does not mean farmers who lack these are bad borrowers. We asked ourselves, how else can financial institutions be able to profile these farmers, understand the risks and offer products that work? That is why we built this technology, to collect data on smallholder farmers and connect them to these institutions.
Where do SDGs come in?
The one thing that resonates with me for anyone pushing for the SDGs is that they talk of leaving no one behind. That is what I connect with most. But what does “leave no one behind” mean? I understand it to mean that everyone in the village will no longer go hungry or be poor. It’s a huge undertaking.
Are you a farmer yourself?
Yes, although I don’t own any piece of land, I have leased a greenhouse where I grow tomatoes and sweet peppers.
How do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I’m passionate about getting involved in building programmes that actually work for farmers in Africa, specifically the young ones. Our vision as FarmDrive is to help farmers across Africa to achieve self-sustainability by accessing resources, not only to fend for themselves and their families, but also to thrive.
How do you connect the youth and agriculture?
I want to see more young people engaged in agriculture, because that’s where the opportunities are. Agriculture presents an opportunity for Africa to get out of poverty and achieve many of the 17 SDGs. We urge governments and other organizations to involve the youth by building programmes that support them.
Why is agriculture not attractive to young people?
When I listen to the youth, they are very clear that they do not want to be the ones doing the manual work like tilling the land. They do not think it is sexy, and you cannot blame them. If you grew up in a farming community, you struggled to make ends meet, yet you spent all your time on the farm after school. Even parents themselves do not wish farming on their children upon graduation. But interestingly, with technology, things are changing. Youth farmers are now digitally managing their farms from afar, connecting with other farmers on social media to get advice, and getting market prices on their phone. The technologies available to farmers are changing and we want to help youth farmers be aware of and access these technologies.
How do you think young people can be supported to become more productive citizens?
One of the key things is to make sure that we are not just “supporting” the youth but rather we are “working with them,” making sure they are part of the conversation, being involved in designing programmes and policies that affect them, and listening to their voices.