GROWING up in Wajir, which is about 440km from Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, Jamila Abass had a dear teacher who was blind.
“I wished to become a doctor then because I wanted to help restore his sight,” she recalled.
She attended a medical course in Morocco, but later opted for computer science when she was told that there would be just one scholarship for students in her class to pursue medicine.
Now 33, the Kenyan has become a problem solver of sorts.
The computer scientist and social entrepeneur calls herself an “accidental computer scientist”.
She invented M-Farm, a mobile app powered by text messages providing real-time crop market prices and contacts to farmers in Kenya. It also offers a group-selling tool, which enables farmers to get together and take their produce to certain drop-off points.
This would enable the farmers to connect directly with buyers, allowing them to make profits.
“The media in Kenya always talked about how farmers are being ripped off by middlemen,” she said in an interview after attending the Global Transformation Forum in Kuala Lumpur last month.
The forum was a platform for influential leaders to share their experiences on how to drive transformation.
Jamila was a panel speaker during a session on “Transforming the Future of Business”.
According to her, many smallholders in Kenya had the produce but no means to market them.
As for the farmers, she said they had to rely on middlemen, causing them to lose out on the profits.
“There was a huge disconnect between markets and farmers. We wanted to close that information gap between them,” said Jamila.
In 2010, together with an associate, Jamila drew up M-Farm.
“I came from a humble beginning. When we talk about people at the bottom of the pyramid, I’m not just talking about it. I’m talking from experience,” said Jamila, who as a child helped to tend her family-owned stalls.
She said it was important to help farmers, who made up 80% of the rural population in Kenya.
“The app was built to create a connection between farmers and buyers, ultimately reducing the obstacles between them.
“When there are middlemen involved in a buying transaction, the money that goes into the farmer’s pocket is less,” she said.
With the M-Farm app, she hoped to change how rural Kenyans conduct their farming business.
“This can help increase the number of people being taken out of poverty,” she added.
Jamila cited previous cases in which other people came forward, wanting to help the farmers with their projects, but which eventually fell through.
This left the farmers high and dry, and sceptical.
To gain the farmers’ trust in M-Farm, Jamila approached the farming community’s leaders and groups, using word of mouth to spread the message.
Even former US president Barack Obama, when he visited Kenya in 2015, was all praise for M-Farm.
Jamila is indeed serious about helping the farmers.
“A future without farmers spells disaster for the world’s food security,” she said.
“We are talking about 500 million smallholder farmers in the developing world.”
Jamila said consumer trends showed that people were going back to organic produce, something that these farmers had the expertise to yield.
Among the women in Wajir – where a Unicef study has put school enrolment of girls at only 13.9% – Jamila is a role model.
She is also one of the 2015 New African Women of The Year and Forbes 10 Female Tech Founders to Watch.
Asked whether she would encourage other women to venture into science as she did, she said women should “do whatever they choose to do”.
“If a woman feels that she is better in business than science, then she should be given that freedom of choice,” she added.
She also credited her brothers for having vigorously fought for her right to be educated.
“I only started attending secular school when I was almost eight, the same time as my younger brother, who was three years younger than me. I call myself accidentally educated,” she said, laughing.