Africa’s digital farm services are growing nearly 45 percent a year, with farmers using apps to provide advice, buy goods, and take out loans
By Wesley Langat / Thomson Reuters Foundation, KOIYET, Kenya
Wilson Lang’at has made a steady profit on his farm in Koiyet Village over the past year by managing to get the seeds and fertilizer it needs, anticipating droughts and floods, and borrowing money to diversify his crops – all of it over his phone.
His experience is not the norm as most farmers across Kenya have faced the double blow of extreme weather conditions that have plummeted their yields and COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews stifled access to supplies and demand for their produce.
Until two years ago, the 46-year-old father of six cows traded corn on the side on his 2.5 hectare farm in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Then he started using the DigiFarm app to access farm supplies, weather reports and funding.
Lang’at said he had gone from 219 kg of corn per acre to around 728 kg per acre plus beans, potatoes and tomatoes – and made fast enough to drop the beef branch of his business.
âI’ve never stopped farming since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Agriculture has become more profitable [than cows], and now it’s my full-time job, âhe said.
In Africa, experts say, agricultural technology or agri-tech like DigiFarm is playing an increasingly crucial role in cushioning smallholders against the crop-damaging effects of climate change and the economic pain of the pandemic.
There are around 4.5 million smallholders in Kenya, whose joint production makes up more than 60 percent of the country’s food, according to government data.
DigiFarm, a free service from telecommunications giant Safaricom, launched in 2017 – but the bulk of its 1.4 million users signed up after the pandemic hit, said Elizabeth Mudogo, DigiFarm’s director of customer experience.
Daniel Langat, a DigiFarm village advisor in Bomet County, where Koiyet is located, said the app saves farmers time and money.
After ordering through the app, farmers receive short message service notifications when their goods are ready for collection at a local depot – the company has nearly 30 in Bomet alone – and they can get store credit and discounts, Langat said.
DigiFarm also helps farmers prepare for more erratic weather patterns by sending them information on best practices and tips on reducing crop losses, as well as historical weather reports and forecasts.
“This app brought farmers in our area together,” said Langat. “Since all farmers are planting at the same time, as they receive weather updates at the same time, this helps with disease control and decision-making.”
In the event that farmers nevertheless suffer unexpected crop failures, DigiFarm offers insurance and loans via the popular M-Pesa mobile money platform.
During the pandemic, Lang’at borrowed 1,300 Kenyan shillings (US $ 12) through the app to buy tomato seeds. From selling the products, he made more than 50 times as much, which allowed him to pay his children’s tuition fees.
âPlanning is easier. [For example] When I get news of low rainfall, I plant beans that do well with shorter rainfall, âhe said.
An April report by the Netherlands-based Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation said that Africa’s digital agricultural services sector has grown by almost 45 percent annually in terms of farmers reached over the past three years.
Since the pandemic began, Kenyan company Twiga Foods Ltd has seen an increase in the number of farmers using its Soko Yetu (Our Market) digital platform to reach customers without hiring expensive brokers, said Caine Wanjau, chief technology officer of Twiga.
Twiga, which was founded in 2014, harvests and buys the products of its member farms and then takes the goods to collection centers for processing and packaging, he said.
When sellers order something through the app, the company delivers it to their stores.
Originally only operating in Nairobi, the platform expanded to five other major cities in Kenya during the pandemic and recently announced a new expansion into Uganda, Wanjau said.
The app now covers more than 17,000 farmers and 35,000 traders, he added.
Ann Waithera signed up with Twiga a year ago to help her run her general store on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Instead of going to the markets to buy goods, order it from home and it will be delivered the next morning.
âToday the market is on my cell phone. I save over 500 shillings [every day]that would have been used for transportation, and I don’t wake up at 4 a.m. to go to the market in Nairobi, so now I can be with my children, âshe said.
LOW INCOME FARMERS
A January report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co said farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are using more than 400 apps and digital platforms for everything from access to financial services to planting advice to supply chain management.
However, the use of these apps is limited by technical challenges such as the lack of internet access for farmers, with 3G networks covering only about 40 percent of rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, while half of the region has no power grid.
However, David J. Spielman, a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, said that agro-technology apps are already helping to build climate resilience among smallholders.
“Crop and livestock yields, as well as production, are increasing in Africa – the bigger problem is that this growth rate has to increase,” he wrote in an email.
To achieve this, he urged developers to focus more on tools for poorer and other marginalized communities so that platforms can cater to their specific needs.
For example, some technologies provide weather information when the real restriction for farmers in a given area may be access to credit and finance.
“There is significant growth potential for digital innovation across the region if developers and vendors can figure out how to truly engage and benefit from people in low-income groups,” said Spielman.
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