#17 sharing
Kenny Ewan

Bottom-Up Experts

Farmers know their needs best, concluded Kenny Ewan of WeFarm and created a global mobile platform for crowdsourcing agricultural information.

Paul in Laikipia, Kenya, was born into farming. He lives 10 kilometres from the closest village. Recently, Paul had a problem with his goat - it was not eating properly and rapidly losing weight. He picked up his mobile phone and sent an SMS to WeFarm asking for advice. Paul received three SMS messages back from fellow farmers in less than an hour. Paul said “I live in the village, more than 10 kilometres away from town. There is no one to help with expert knowledge here.” WeFarm gave him an easy way to crowdsource information for free using just his mobile, no internet connection needed. Paul and his family rely on the produce his farm yields, as do many in the developing world. He told me his goat might have died if he hadn’t taken the advice he received from other farmers. Without easy access to information, farmers in remote areas of the world are highly vulnerable to a variety of preventable problems, including animals falling sick and the increasing effects of climate change such as soil erosion.

Some people are surprised to hear the extent to which people are willing to offer help for free, especially in a development context.

The sharing economy is something we are very familiar with in the West, but some of its benefits are only just beginning to filter down into developing countries. With increasing criticism of charity and the spread of donor fatigue, it seems like using peer-to-peer services (P2P) and crowdsourcing could be an excellent way to get services to people who need them without requiring huge investments in material resources. Through WeFarm, more than 100,000 answers have been shared by farmers, who gain nothing financially or materially from their contributions. Some people are surprised to hear the extent to which people are willing to offer help for free, especially in a development context. Why would someone with so little be so willing to give? What could they possibly gain from the effort of writing an SMS to provide information for someone they might never meet?

It is a valid question: Why do people like to share? In our experience, farmers are more than happy to give fellow farmers information that could benefit their lives. Giving is a very powerful phenomenon. Amadeo in Peru said that helping other farmers simply increases your self-esteem, “because your knowledge is helping another person.” It appears that there is an inherent ‘good’ in sharing – something all three-year-old children learning about sharing probably hear over and over again.

In a restaurant, for example, if diners are given sweets or chocolate after dinner, they are much more likely to tip.

Giving also inspires reciprocity. The idea that those who give shall receive is found in old stories, folklore, and, of course, religious canons. Whether you are a Buddhist who believes in the cosmic force of karma or a devout Christian who reads the Bible, the idea that giving encourages others to give to you is deeply human. In many situations, reciprocity has proven to be a strong force. In a restaurant, for example, if diners are given sweets or chocolate after dinner, they are much more likely to tip. Clearly, whether you are on a farm or in a restaurant, when you have given something you are much more likely to receive something in return. As one of the farmers we interviewed in Kenya said: “It’s really important to help others if you need help.”

Of the 100 farmers we contacted in Kenya, 60% of respondents said they had grown in confidence as a result of sharing their knowledge on WeFarm.

Another motivation behind sharing might be that imparting wisdom can increase our self-esteem. Of the 100 farmers we contacted in Kenya, 60% of respondents said they had grown in confidence as a result of sharing their knowledge on WeFarm. Amadeo from Peru agreed, saying that sharing “helps you to remember things that you already know and that you have already learnt.” It’s pretty clear that contributing to the lives of others is an incredibly powerful experience - especially for farmers living in remote areas, who might never have been asked for their opinion before. Empowerment flows both ways as a result of crowdsourcing, and the people sharing their ideas and knowledge benefit just as much as the recipients.

Another benefit of crowdsourcing is that it creates a very scalable model. With hundreds or thousands of people on the ground contributing knowledge, expertise, and information, networks can grow exponentially and require fewer central resources than in a top-down organisation. Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom explored this idea extensively in their book ‘The Starfish and the Spider’. Not only do peer-to-peer networks grow much more quickly than top-down organisations; they are also far more resilient, as there is not one ‘leader’ at risk of being destroyed.

Crowdsourcing does come with challenges, however. One is financial. Many crowdsourced businesses allow customers to access the product or service for free, so how do such businesses monetise sustainably? In general, companies with a crowdsourcing model rely on massive scale to become financially sustainable, so they inevitably rely on funding and investment over a period of time. There is always a risk that companies will not be able to secure funding or that their investment capital will run out before they can monetise.

…most crowdsourcing organisations rely on the people in the network to monitor the activity of other members.

Moderation presents another challenge. As with any community, there is always a percentage of people who abuse or misuse the network - whether this involves promoting a separate business or organisation, posting inappropriate or unrelated content, or even using the network to commit crimes or offences. One way to meet this challenge is to do nothing and let the organisation self-moderate. This may sound counter-intuitive, but most crowdsourcing organisations rely on the people in the network to monitor the activity of other members.

It seems that with ownership comes responsibility - and a desire to protect the community they have contributed to.

Indeed, we have noticed that there is a high degree of self-policing on WeFarm. We have never asked our members to monitor others’ behaviour, yet we often see farmers sending replies to posters of inappropriate content asking them to use the service for its proper function. It seems that with ownership comes responsibility - and a desire to protect the community they have contributed to.

Another way to overcome moderation challenges is by blocking content or individuals who abuse the system. Unfortunately this is something we are familiar with, and have implemented only when absolutely necessary. A belief in the power of peer-to-peer is the foundation of our business and our ultimate goal is to give farmers a voice, so we are hesitant to silence people’s voices without good reason. However, certain words regarding terrorism, religion, or marriage are blocked on our system and any messages containing those words will not be forwarded on to other farmers.

If you think about how social networks and other P2P services are moderated in Europe and the US, you can see that a combination of approaches works best. Usually, the members of the network are responsible for highlighting potential areas of concern, and then the more centralised core of the organisation can confirm or reject the request to block content or individuals. The concept of peer-moderated content also provides an opportunity for users to be ranked positively. If you consider eBay or Couchsurfing, ‘top’ members are rewarded with good peer-rated reviews - and the power of a non-biased review is usually perceived to be very trustworthy.

Do farmers have valuable knowledge to share?

Crowdsourcing is something we have grown familiar with in the West, and I would argue that it is an area ripe for innovation that can push international development forward. When I first started WeFarm, one of the questions I encountered most was not ‘why would farmers want to share information?’ but ‘do farmers have valuable knowledge to share?’ The idea that people living in poverty need advice and handouts is so deeply ingrained in our society, that often the main concern around crowdsourcing isn’t about the key challenges, but rather questions the legitimacy of the knowledge of the crowd. Obviously not all advice you access on a forum is correct, but we need to move towards trusting that people who live in poverty are just as good at perceiving false information as we are.

I have learned more about agriculture than I ever could have learned from a book.

Through my experience giving people a platform to share their ideas and innovations with one another on WeFarm, I have personally gained a lot in my own life. I have learned more about agriculture than I ever could have learned from a book. I’ve heard women and young people say they now feel that what they have to say is important, and, to top it all off, I have seen thousands of people create a global community based on sharing. Crowdsourcing may have its challenges, but the benefits go far beyond your wildest dreams.

Photo: by WeFarm
licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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