The digital farmer

Kenya's smallholder farmers are finding hope in digital solutions, turning to mobile technology to ease their frustrations and make farming profitable

03 Aug 2018 . 14,152 Views

In the Kenyan context, being able to take your kids to private school is kind of a big deal, even more so for a smallholder farmer.

But that’s what one man, Geoffrey Kimathi, has been able to do since transitioning from a struggling smallholder farmer into an exporter.
For him, affording private school is a direct result of the growth in yield from his small farm, where for years he planted maize, beans and bananas for subsistence, selling the surplus to the local market whenever he got lucky.

This changed four years ago, when Geoffrey realised that he could do more after getting access to piped water. Soon after, he began joining other farmers for training at a centre in Nkubu, Meru County, where he learned about horticulture and how he could venture into it to supplement his meagre income.
But there was something missing.

“Unajua shida yetu ni pesa; capital ya kuanza hii kazi (You know, our main problem here is lack of access to money; the capital to finance this work),” he said in an interview at his farm last month.
He also faced another persistent problem: access to farm inputs such as herbicides and pesticides, fertiliser and high quality, certified seeds.
Often, he would plant seeds and cultivate his crop without these inputs, and hope for the best. Many times, his hopes were dashed, but he kept at it, because around those parts, it was simply what one did: what farmers had been doing for generations.

One day early this year, things changed. He was listening to the radio when he heard about DigiFarm, an integrated, free-to-use mobile platform that offers smallholder farmers access to a range of discounted products, customised information on farming best practices, and access to credit and other financial facilities. What piqued his interest was learning that all he needed to do to try it out was register for it on his phone.

Launched by Safaricom less than a year ago, DigiFarm offers smallholder farmers much-needed access to information on affordable inputs, e-extension services, access to markets and insurance. The beauty of the product is that farmers receive information specific to their farms because it is geo-specific – down to an administrative ward.
Using simple feature phones, farmers are also able to access tutorials on planting, application of herbicides and pesticides and how to harvest and prevent post-harvest losses.

“The idea is to have farmers engaged in precision farming; farming based on science,” says Fred Kiio, the Head of M-Agribusiness at Safaricom.

It’s a concept foreign to many of Kenya’s farmers. In fact, writing on the subject recently, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business and a regular commentator on socio-economic issues, described farming in Kenya as “largely desperate random guesswork”.

This is perhaps why farming in Kenya, and the wider sub-Saharan African region, is associated with poverty even though an estimated 70 per cent of the population rely on agriculture for subsistence.
Despite favourable climates and rich soils, most farmers are unable to produce enough to feed themselves and make a decent profit from selling the surplus. Outdated farming practices and wide information gaps conspire to keep the smallholder farmer small, a situation made even worse by the influx of substandard farm inputs and grip of shrewd businessmen on the agricultural sector.
So it’s no surprise then, that as Safaricom worked to develop DigiFarm, says Kiio, their research brought them to a startling realisation: Kenya has not had an official government census of farmers since 1961. The statistics available are developed by a myriad of organisations, many of them non-profits.

This research also revealed that less than one per cent of smallholder farmers have access to credit, because the financial institutions don’t have a proper database to calculate farmers’ credit scores from.
As if that isn’t enough, an estimated 68 per cent of the value of produce from farmers goes to brokers and retailers, with the rest distributed between farmers and post-harvest losses.
While agro-processors struggle to find steady supply of raw materials, the occasional bountiful harvest often goes to waste owing to poor storage infrastructure and access to market.

“An illustration of this was witnessed in Laikipia this year, when desperate farmers either let their tomatoes rot or fed them to livestock, yet the price of a tomato had shot to Sh15 in Nairobi and Sh35 in Kisumu,” says Kiio.

“You can see the mismatch, where the excess that farmers have is not finding its way to where it’s supposed to go,” he adds.

So where does Safaricom, a telecommunications company, come in?

DigiFarm is Safaricom’s attempt at using mobile technology to help farmers find a sustainable solution to the myriad of problems they face.

“What we are asking ourselves is: How can we leverage technology to overcome these challenges? For me, the vision and purpose that we have is to build what we are calling a socio-economic business model to impact the social fabric of the country and transform lives. At the same time, we also want to use technology to create a business model that can generate income for the shareholders. It’s both a social and economic discussion that we are having,” says Kiio.

It’s an innovative solution, and farmers appear to have been waiting for it. At the launch of the pilot last year, the target was to register 10,000 farmers. 74,000 farmers approached Safaricom. Since then, close to 700,000 farmers have registered onto the platform, with about a third of them – more than 200,000 – using the service daily and 7,000 of them taking loans. The target is to have 1.4 million farmers using the platform by December 2018.

The company, which is a champion of the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals, is leveraging its networks and partnerships to reach 1.4 million farmers by the end of this year.
In partnership with iProcure, Safaricom is able to guarantee access to high quality inputs, and is working with FarmDrive to provide affordable credit. Another partner, Arifu, comes in to provide farmers with access to relevant information.

“Ukilima, hata ukifuga ng’ombe, hakuna pesa. Kupata mkopo ni shida. Sasa unashindwa hiyo ng’ombe utalisha na nini. Lakini na DigiFarm naona kama nitaweza hii mambo ya ufugaji. Nitaweza kukopa, (With farming, even dairy farming, getting money is difficult. Getting a loan is hard. You wonder how you’ll feed your cow. But with DigiFarm, I might be able to succeed in dairy farming because I can access credit),” says Fred Mwenda, a 32-year-old farmer, also from Meru.

His registration onto DigiFarm happened courtesy of his wife, who introduced it to him one evening after realising that the dairy cooperative that bought their milk was yet to pay for the month’s delivery.
Out of frustration, and desperately in need of a loan, Mwenda registered his details. Almost immediately, he was able to secure a loan of KES 1,200, which they used to buy maize meal, salt lick and deworming drugs from the local DigiFarm depot – one of 26,000 that Safaricom targets to open around the country.

This past week, the company opened three more depots in Makueni, giving an estimated 150,000 farmers in the county access to the kind of ease and convenience that they are not used to.
Kiio says beginning September, Safaricom will start scaling up DigiFarm to make it a sustainable business.

“Scaling is about creating impact for farmers, building a sustainable business model so that DigiFarm on its own can actually generate revenue for the shareholders, pay for the expenses and become a sustainable business on its own,” says Kiio adding that for now, the focus is less on how much money can be made from DigiFarm, and more on transforming the lives of farmers.

This narrative of transforming lives peppers the entire interview, and looking at Kiio, you see a man who is determined to change the perception of farming in Kenya.

“My parents were farmers, and I was educated from the proceeds of farming. When I finished high school I also began to farm, something I’ve continued to do to this day,” he says.

It’s a glimpse into a background that made the team question the oft-stated statistic that the average Kenyan farmer is over 60 years old.

In fact, 22 per cent of the farmers on the platform are youthful, and 26 per cent of them use smart phones.

“The people who will be feeding the world in the next 20 years will be young people. We must ensure that we entice them using digital solutions,” says Kiio.

Such solutions are helping farmers like Geoffrey and Mwenda shed some of the frustration that was for them synonymous with being a farmer.

“I’m no longer new to DigiFarm,” says Mwenda a hint of pride in his voice as he adds: “I have been on it for four months now.”
With every payment he makes of the small loan, he gets access to qualify for more credit, something he never thought he would be able to do from the comfort of his mobile phone.

Just like Mwenda, who has big plans to expand into full-time agribusiness, Geoffrey is planning for his future.
He is now an exporter of French beans, and plans to take a bigger loan to buy a water storage tank for use when the county supply is unreliable. He is also rallying his neighbours to raise money for a project that will increase access to piped water, and with that the opportunity to have more acreage under crops.

With a healthy crop and abundant yields, he no longer considers himself a smallholder farmer – he is a budding entrepreneur, and a symbol of the future of farming not just in Kenya, but in Africa.


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