Why we think chatbots for farmers in Kenya isn’t as stupid as it sounds

First, what’s a chatbot?

First things first, a chatbot is a service powered by rules and sometimes artificial intelligence that you interact with via a chat interface. By chat interfaces we mean things like Facebook messenger, Telegram, Slack and more. If you haven’t used a bot before try this weather bot out right now (I’m assuming you have a Facebook account), it’ll be much quicker than me trying to explain. If you want to try out more bots there are good lists to explore further.

Why haven’t I heard much about bots?

Chatbots are pretty new and still have a lot of room to improve. It’s fair to say that bots are still in the ‘buzz’ faze with companies rapidly releasing bots that are high in novelty factor but low in utility. Building bot personalities is a question up for debate, it probably shouldn’t pretend to be human but what kind of ‘personality’ should it have? It’s also fair to say bots are still mainly notification centres, but some are exploring payments , social networks and more. Will bots just be customer acquisition channels for established companies, or a medium for new companies to create products in? To be honest nobody knows. At this stage though chatbots feel more like command line interfaces than dazzling virtual AI messaging virtuosos… it’s early days.

But for farmers in Kenya?

Ok, so let’s get to the ‘Farmers in Kenya’ bit. Mark Zuckerberg was talking about chatbots at the last F8 developer conference where he showed off a CNN news app and a way to order flowers (in the US). You might be thinking that Kenyan farmers are going to be low down the pecking order to benefit from this stuff. Even if Safaricom’s last annual report showed an impressive 7.8 million smartphones on their network, it’s surely a push to say that those smartphone users (who are also farmers) are going to start using (and benefiting from) chatbots! Right?

Here are 3 reasons we think that might be wrong…

1: A culture of USSD more likely to accept — US consumers probably have little patience for a command line interface that reminds them of when they owned a Nokia phone (if they’re that old!). On the other hand well over half of Kenyan adults have a mobile money account (which uses USSD), and top up their phone constantly using command line interfaces. These clunky interfaces are built into the average Kenyan’s daily mobile experience and so are less likely to be jarring than their US counterparts whose reaction to “press 1 to continue” creates bad customer service experience shivers.

2: There is serious agriculture going on in Facebook & WhatsApp — discussion about farming is quickly moving online, and it’s largely in Facebook and Whatsapp groups. Mobile numbers are the best digital form of identification in Kenya and Facebook have built a strong consumer foothold that links to these IDs, with 5.3 million MAUs growing 18.6% from last year (most of which is mobile). This is all pretty good for bots.

3: A dearth of good alternatives — one of the most compelling reasons bots might stick for farmers in Kenya is the fact that so few good digital alternatives exist. Consider that flower ordering bot again. People who are buying/selling flowers have a lot of other online options to choose from/compete with from apps, websites, etc. Why would I use a bot? Really? In contrast, the online options for the vast numbers of farmers (and buyers) in Kenya are slim pickings in comparison (it’s also probably worth mentioning that apps aren’t so appealing to a ‘pay by the MB’ mobile population who aren’t flooded with free wifi at every turn). So maybe a chatbot, if it really worked, isn’t so stupid after all…

Where next?

At farm.ink we decided to take on this challenge and start building chatbots for farmers in Kenya. Our aim is simple. Provide high quality services to farmers that go beyond novelty and provide real utility, e.g. increasing profitability. We’re excited to be working with IDEO.org and DFID as they lend their design expertise and support along our journey. Over the coming months we’ll be blogging more about our insights from prototyping chatbot solutions. We’re always interested to hear from people about our work. If you have questions, ideas or anything else please get in touch (info@farm.ink) as we’d love to hear from you. You can also subscribe to our newsletter here to stay tuned to what we’re up to.