While working on sustainability projects in Peru, WeFarm CEO and founder Kenny Ewan realised that huge swathes of the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers lack access to the information that would enable them to farm as efficiently as possible.
In 2016, WeFarm placed second in the Chivas Venture with their idea for a peer-to-peer information sharing service that places the power to find innovative grassroots solutions to farming problems in the palms of farmers’ hands.
Essentially, WeFarm has curated a vast pool of global knowledge, fed by small-scale agriculturalists from all over the world, and made it available for free. Now, with $200,000 of the Chivas Venture funding, WeFarm are setting their sights even higher, looking at how big data and trend mapping can help inform solutions to global problems, while still addressing the issues faced by individual farmers.
Here, Kenny discusses his most affecting memories of The Chivas Venture, along with the potential role agtech could play in the future of farming - and the planet.
What was your abiding memory of The Chivas Venture 2016?
My favourite memory is the first time I saw the other four finalists pitch. Until that point the competition was run in a way that all of the stages of the competition had been behind closed doors. When they announced the winners of the semi-final they took us immediately over to the studio to do a stage rehearsal for the live final. It was a surreal moment. I was scheduled to be the final person to pitch, and for the first time I watched the other four get up on stage in front of the cameras and do their pitches. It was genuinely a humbling moment for me, both in terms of the amazing work the other four were doing and how that reflected on us for being there alongside them. I had butterflies thinking about following them.
What has been the most beneficial aspect of The Chivas Venture experience?
The prize money came in useful, but it’s definitely exposure and having a flat plan to be able to share your ideas. That’s a huge thing about the Chivas Venture…it’s deliberately taking social enterprises and giving them a flat plan to talk to the world. Even if we’d not won any prize money it would still have been a hugely fulfilling and advantageous thing for us. We spoke to journalists we’d never normally have had a chance to speak to and we had exposure on social media on a scale we might not have had otherwise
How has WeFarm developed since taking part in the Chivas Venture?
It has been an amazing few months; things are moving really quickly for us. When we first filled out our application form we had 3,000 or 4000 people using our system. By the time we arrived in New York we were up to about 50,000 people. We passed a huge milestone in December with 100,000 users in our system, and now we’re very close to hitting 150,000. People use it a lot as well; we’ve just got our 20 millionth question and once a farmer uses our system for 24 hours they almost never leave, so we have incredible retention of users. We also sealed a commercial venture capital assessment round which is very unusual for a social enterprise; one of our proudest achievements is convincing people there’s a bigger business opportunity here.
What big trends in the sector do you envisage?
Mapping out significant trends is very much a work in progress for us, for example the age dynamics, the gender dynamics of how people interact with farming. The only information that NGOs or governments have is gathered from going out with clipboards and asking people these questions. As we know from market research, that’s often not a reliable source of what’s actually happening. What’s interesting about WeFarm is you get an instant picture of that reality, so we’re starting to work with NGOs and multinationals to give them insight into their supply chains. For example, we’ve been mapping out trends in the difference in age dynamics between tea and coffee as younger farmers start to plant more coffee and move away from tea.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world will need to produce 70% more food in 2050 than it did in 2006 in order to feed the growing population. What role do you see WeFarm playing in sustaining this demand?
From our side that’s very much about the small-scale agriculture. Seventy percent of all the food we eat on earth comes from small-scale farmers, most of them in developing countries without access to the internet. WeFarm is primarily targeted, at the moment, at helping those farmers increase their yields and become more resistant to disease. Climate change is going to play into that massively, and we’re particularly keen to see WeFarm helping in that area. Combining the knowledge, the expertise and the grassroots solutions of literally tens of millions of small-scale farmers will really help to develop that section of the global food supply chain. That’s our goal - to make small differences across huge numbers of people.
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No endorsement or connection is meant between those featured in this article and Chivas.