iCow: Kenyans now manage their herds via mobile phone
The iCow mobile-phone app, invented by an organic farmer outside of Nairobi, Kenya, is just one example of the country's growing high-tech entrepreneurial culture.
As an organic farmer outside of Nairobi, Su Kahumbu could see the challenge that her cattle-herding neighbors had in handling the expenses of their most precious assets, the female cow.Skip to next paragraph
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If the cattle owner didn’t pay attention, he might miss the very brief window of time when his cow went into heat, missing a chance at expanding his herd. Some cattle men wasted their money on the wrong kind of feed, others were selling their cattle off at below the market rate, and yet all of them had the tool in their hands to get information: a cell phone.
So, Ms. Kahumbu came up with iCow, a mobile-phone application that allows herders to register each individual cow, and to receive individualized text messages on their mobile phones, including advice for veterinary care and feeding schedules, a database of experts, and updated market rates on cattle prices. It’s an example of how high technology can help out even in the low-tech business of agriculture, in which 80 percent of Kenyans make a living.
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“Eighty percent of Kenyans are farmers, and by that I mean people who make a living off of the land, and 80 percent of the food people eat comes from people who sell in the rural marketplace,” says Kahumbu. “So, even though I’m not an expert in technology or development, I thought, why not take the gestation calendar of a cow and send it to agriculturalists, and that can help them increase their productivity, and also increase their savings.”
Kahumbu’s iCow may not be the latest sensation on Wall Street, but experts say it is just the latest example of an innovative high-tech entrepreneurial culture that has started to take hold in Kenya. Following in the footsteps of major commercial successes such as MPESA – a mobile-phone banking application that now rivals Western Union – other Kenyan software developers are setting up shop in Nairobi, creating high-tech solutions for an African market that has long been ignored; universities and private companies are setting up labs and business incubators; and government officials are plotting strategies to transform Kenya into a high-tech hub for the continent.
“We have a large number of Kenyans doing software development, and because of successes like MPESA, a lot of them are developing mobile applications,” says Bitange Ndemo, the permanent secretary for Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. “So what we are doing on the government side, we are developing incubators so that an idea can be developed, and we can provide an environment where someone can taken their idea to market. For every 100 startups, maybe one will succeed, but that one company may change the lives of a lot of people.”
A techie paradise
Walk through the iHub, Nairobi’s most famous high-tech incubator, and you’ll feel the buzz of a collaborative competition. Software developers in faded jeans sidle up to website designers to ask for advice on how to make their mobile-phone applications more user-friendly, or to another coder for tips on how to work the bugs out of their system. When a developer feels ready to take his product to market, he or she can receive advice on how to create a business plan, or how to attract investors.
IHub is a techie paradise, filled with the kinds of young smart African men and women that tech-blogger Curt Hopkins likes to call Afro-Nerd Superstars. In one corner of iHub, a hissing machine makes cappuccinos. A gaggle of young men crowd around a foosball table, letting off steam, while a scattering of software developers sit in front of laptops in singles or pairs, typing in computer code. With 10,000 members – half of them accessing iHub services online – this is the Africa that gets forgotten amid the headlines of war and famine, but it’s an Africa that is applying the tools of the West with a particularly African sensibility.