Wezesha na Kabambe is a chatbot for smallholder farmers that isn’t reliant on internet connectivity and works on basic mobile or “feature” phones. Its creators hail from four different universities in Kenya, the U.K., and the U.S. and are the recipients of a Mozilla Common Voice grant.
We spoke with team members Winston Mano and Lusike Mukhongo about the importance of collaborating with rural farmers on designing the technology meant for them.
- The majority of smallholder farmers in Kenya live and work in rural areas and are women, and they often lack reliable internet connectivity and newer-model mobile phones
- Some long-standing supports have recently been scaled back by government budget cuts, so smallholder farmers are experiencing a new void in accessing critical information to help with crops and livestock
- Wezesha na Kabambe translates to “empower with the phone.” A “kabambe” phone is a basic-model, feature phone that’s known for its affordability, durability, and ease of use, and is the type that’s most often used by the smallholder farmers the project targets
Due to its exploding national debt, the Kenyan government has recently undertaken deep budget cuts, with the cabinet ordering all ministries and state departments to reduce their budgets by ten percent in late 2023. Personal visits (often on motorbike) by agricultural officers to smallholder farmers in rural areas have grown rarer due to the cuts, leaving the farmers more vulnerable to crop and livestock risks posed by a lack of current information about weather patterns, disease, and other threats.
Wezesha na Kabambe is a chatbot that works independently of an internet connection and on both smartphones and basic-model feature phones – the types of devices many rural, smallholder farmers in Kenya use. The project team fanned out to survey smallholder farmers around Western Kenyan in Vihiga, Trans Nzoia and Bungoma counties, gathering data on phone use, patterns and types of farming, the range of spoken dialects, and economic and educational backgrounds. In spending time in conversation with the farmers, the project’s field team has been able to gain a deep understanding of the way they use their phones and the specific types of information they need the most.
“The whole idea of talking to the farmers is to assess their needs so they can be co-designers, and we can produce something that is the most useful for them,” Mano says. Field workers also collect recordings of the women’s voices to share with the tech team building the chatbot.
The coalition that created Wezesha na Kabambe is one of eight awardees in Mozilla’s 2023 - 24 Common Voice Kiswahili program, which funds projects leveraging the Kiswahili language and voice technology to increase social and economic opportunities for marginalized groups in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Kiswahili-speaking Democratic Republic of Congo. These grants are supported by the Gates Foundation in collaboration with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the German development agency GIZ, as a response to a gender-conscious and community-centered approach to tech development.
The chatbot is currently in testing and development, and Mozilla funding allowed the team much greater access to local voices, giving them the ability to record the farmers, document their narratives, and upload the material into the program’s data set. The team comes from different disciplines, continents, and universities, but Mukhongo and Mano emphasize that the funding has allowed them to pull together their collective expertise and networks to realize their vision of a more inclusive and equitable internet.
Says Mano: “We will know our work is done when we’ve created a more accessible technology – not just in terms of cost, but in terms of the user dimension, leaving nobody out – making it more inclusive and responsive to everyone’s needs. ”
Mukhongo admires, and has been influenced by, the work of researchers who study civic technology in different contexts and geographies. One of them is Ruha Benjamin, a Princeton University professor of African American studies who examines the nexus of innovation and inequity. Another is Seyram Avle, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts whose work focuses on transnational tech collaborations and how digital tech production in parts of Africa, China, and the U.S. affect labor and identity.
Mano’s admiration is centered closer to home. “I feel really inspired by my colleague Lusike, the work that she does, and her commitment and passion for participatory technologies,” he said.
“Asante Sana,” meaning “thank you very much.” Mano feels profound gratitude towards the smallholder farmers who worked on Wezesha na Kabambe for embracing the team into their own communities and for all their contributions.
“Karibu,” meaning “welcome.” For Mukhongo, “karibu” has a double meaning in relation to the project. Mukhongo notes that Kenyans are generally very welcoming people, and she echoed Mano’s gratitude for the warm acceptance they received from the farmers they worked with. “They also welcome, and embrace, new technologies,” Mukhongo said of Kenyans. “They’re good adopters, and they welcome new ideas.” Mukhongo attributes this mindset to the growth of other collaborative projects and spaces in Kenya in which people are engaging and building successful new technologies.
Professor Winston Mano, University of Westminster, U.K.; Professor L. Lusike Mukhongo, Western Michigan University, U.S.A.; Professor Masibo Lumala, Moi University, Kenya; and Professor Edwin Ataro, Technical University of Kenya