Today Was a Lesson in Humility

Tanzania 2013

By Almudena Toral

September 30, 2013

Also published by Almudena Toral

Today was a lesson in humility. It will not be the last one in this trip. There’s so much to learn. And like almost everything related to development and aid, getting a clear picture is often complicated. 

Let’s take apps. Today we visited KINU, an innovation tech space for start-ups in Dar Es Salaam. It’s a place frequented by hackers and developers from all walks of life (or that’s what his founder Johnpaul Barretto argues) that provides them with a safe haven to develop products and bounce ideas off each other.

Three of the guys at the tech hub today were creators of farming related apps. An app to help farmers find out current market prices and therefore avoid getting ripped off! How cool! Sounds innovative to me. 

Well, actually quite a few people and organizations have explored this same idea, without knowing of each other, with its subsequent planning and implementation pitfalls. 

"There’s a lot of duplication," says Benedict Tesha, who created in December of 2012 Sokoni Leo ("Market today") a non-for-profit app to provide farmers with current prices at Kariakoo Market in Dar Es Salaam. When he created his app 10 months ago, he didn’t know about John Kagaruki, also at KINU today, who started three years ago One2Two. One 2Two is a  platform for farmers and traders that operates on a subscription model. The younger Bariki Elilaki is also around. He participated in an farming data app contest. He didn’t win, but he’s still hopeful that his application to send messages to farmers will be backed with some funding. 

This sample doesn’t even touch on the international donor initiatives, likeUSAID-Vodafone’s Connected Farmer Alliance. Mr. Kagaruki was very vocal against it, arguing it relies on an economic incentives system that is morally wrong and doesn’t have any real impact on people’s lives. Reports are written; objectives fulfilled on paper. 

Kagaruki said a phone company tried to buy his beta app, but he refused because he believes to make a real difference you have to test things first at the bottom level and make sure you understand what farmers really want and need. “My advice to developers is go to a village, make an app and make it work for five people”, he said. 

He didn’t mean working tech-wise. Do farmers find an app or text messaging system useful? Do they even have a cell phone? If the woman in the family -who normally carries the weight of the farm’s work- has a/the cell phone, does the husband get suspicious of her using it to text other men, like the one at Kariakoo who she would regularly have to text to get prices? Is the middle man really that out of the picture if many middle men are actually villagers and farmers?

A small world, this of apps. But quite a glimpse of a few big questions.

I am reporting on agricultural innovation and food security in Tanzania on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).