Hacking away for fair farm prices

By Jane Duncan
Feb. 21, 2014

Figuring out how farmers could get the crops’ fair-market value is where “my” idea comes in.

The April of my first year in Kenya, I received an email requesting creative, humanitarian ideas to improve the everyday lives of Kenyans through technology. Technology. The word almost made me giggle because the Kenyans I hung out with on a day-to-day basis were farmers. Not John Deere-riding, irrigation-pipe-slinging farmers, but plough-pushing, hand-picking ones. They do all their work without any of the technology that most American farmers use.

During the harvest season, farmers typically get less than five cents a mango, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the fair market value of the crops they work so hard to cultivate. The amount they get for the harder-to-export oranges is even less. Figuring out how farmers could get the crops’ fair-market value is where “my” idea comes in.

Back in December of that same year, another PCV told me about a cell phone service that would respond to texted queries about fair market produce prices. Intrigued, I texted off several questions of my own. I never received a reply. I forgot about the text service until I got the aforementioned email. I asked other PCVs and Kenyans about it. Not one had had any luck with the existing fair-price app. So, I fired off an email proposing a text app that operates with any cell phone (there were no smart phones in the village at that time, but there were a surprising number of circa 2003 cell phones) and that would provide fair-price produce information based on the farmer’s location.

I didn’t stop there. I also proposed that the app work in both English and Kiswahili and be either free or very, very cheap. I hit the "send" button and thought, “that’s that, maybe some well-meaning soul will make this thing happen.”

To my surprise, another email pinged into my inbox. This one came from the Random Hacks of Kindness team and included an invitation to attend a conference in Nyeri, Kenya. I accepted.

The day I arrived in Nyeri, I met Anthony, a Dedan Kimathi University student and Hackathon organizer. Together, we boarded a matatu to the campus, which turned out to be gorgeous and even boasted a view of Mount Kenya. Anthony showed me to his dorm room, which he had vacated so that I could stay there. I hadn't banked on a college flashback quite this heavy-duty, but the lodging was nice enough.

That evening, I ate rice, lentils, and beans in the college cafeteria with several computer science students. The conference started the next day, so when I woke in the morning, I dutifully slid into my conference outfit and walked down to the student union. At 11:00, an organizer mentioned that the Hackathon is a “lock-in." He explained that this means we will be in the same room, working, for the next 30 hours. Nobody else seems surprised, so I must have missed that part of the invitation email. Whoops. My next surprise was finding out that I was to be in charge of a team.

I manage to recruit a team of eight fantastic “hackers.” We discuss my app idea over lunch. There are two techy ladies on my team, which I love. Eight hours later, my team hasn't even bothered to start hacking. We're fine, we think; we have a rock-solid plan to use Java to build a database farmers can use to query price information based on county. They'll even be able to upload their own produce price info. The application will work with any cell phone. After drafting this plan of action, we kick back for a bit. Why work when you can focus on new friends? The ladies and I convene and christen ourselves team “Lipwa Poa,” the cool way to check fair market prices. A legend is born.

By 2:00 am, dehydration is setting in. Apparently, the other hackers here can survive solely on ugali (corn paste) and tea. As the sun rises, our team works out all the kinks. Our logo is complete and looking fabulous. Our Prezi presentation is animated and perfect. The Java database is fully functional and can reply to queries and upload information. Let the games begin.

At 11:00, it's our turn to present. We present the Lipwa Poa application. In my mind, we are the best, most humanitarian, most awesome team. Not everyone saw it that way, but we manage to take second in the Nyeri Hackathon. In first place was a smartphone application that helps Kenyans with cars find parking in Nairobi. I hide my disappointment poorly, but I take comfort in the fact that I have eight new friends. Cheesy, but true.