Tech initiatives have not benefitted smallholder farmers

The only initiative that will reinvigorate the farmers is one that puts money in their pockets.

IN SUMMARY

  • Some will argue that the story of smallholder farmers is the same – blighted by empty promises. Others have listened to tech pitches on how technology can transform agriculture, and wonder what has happened to such start-ups or how far they are in implementing their business ideas.
  • Given its financial muscle, Safaricom is capable of changing the agricultural landscape in a different way, compared with a small startup. Whether directly or indirectly, the company has the logistical muscle and the market goodwill.
  • As we demand more results from the tech companies raising and committing more money, we also need to support the base, whether with local knowledge or through the village networks.
  • We have heard the agri-tech pitches and the market problems, we are now waiting to see the results; sort the supply chain problems and put money in the hands of smallholder farmers.

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The last few weeks have been tough for Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu, after it appeared that she wouldn’t meet her promise to find a market for farm produce.

Mama Ngilu, as she is known, had boldly promised farmers that she would find the market, and all that the farmers needed to do was work hard, implement the strategies and the market will be waiting.

When it appeared like the market for green grams (ndengu) did not respond, social media was quick to comment on the policies. Kitui farmers have done well, Mama Ngilu did all that was asked of her, it is just the market system that has failed the farmers.

There are some who will argue that the story of smallholder farmers is the same – blighted by empty promises. There are others who have listened to tech pitches on how technology can transform agriculture, and wonder what has happened to such start-ups or how far they are in implementing their business ideas.

The issue of markets has been addressed by several start-ups, the most famous being MFarm, which was widely mentioned and visited by US President Barack Obama during his official tour of the country. MFarm had a radical idea of providing farmers with information and providing supply chain solutions.

LET'S CHALLENGE START-UPS

On the big time, Safaricom has made a big bet with M-Agri unit Digifarm, which is expected to provide end-to-end solutions to farmers, and sort out problems like the one Mama Ngilu has.

Given that Kenya’s tech ecosystem has been growing fast in the past five years, is it time to challenge start-ups and big companies to show results, not just launching tech initiatives.

Recent activity and investments by both the private sector and the government indicate a growing interest in digital agriculture to jump-start the country’s stagnated agricultural sector and at the same time deliver more earnings for small-scale farmers, like those in Kitui.

In May a report from Disrupt Africa tracking investment in the continent’s agricultural sector stated that Kenyan agri-based start-ups raised close to Sh2 billion in foreign direct investment over the two years. That kind of money should have an impact on the markets, given it is known to be the perennial problem.

These investments are only set to increase in the coming years as more start-ups move through their growth phase and attract even more attention from foreign investors and venture capital funds.

SAFARICOM'S ROLE

Safaricom’s Digifarm seeks to provide farmers with a solution to scale production and supply, and address distribution challenges that limit the full potential of their planting cycles.

Digifarm is the first product under M-Agri Business, a new department within the company’ enterprise business focusing exclusively on solutions for the agricultural sector and seeking to deliver more value for small-scale farmers.

Given its financial muscle, Safaricom is capable of changing the agricultural landscape in a different way, compared with a small startup. Whether directly or indirectly, the company has the logistical muscle and the market goodwill.

Imagine that Safaricom made a promise to KFC, or any other large potato buyer, that it would guarantee supply year round. KFC would take Safaricom’s word over that of a single farmer or start-up. Imagine that Safaricom provided a solution for the green gram farmers in Kitui that could move their produce from farms to Isebania. Is that possible?

PUT MONEY IN FARMERS' POCKETS

For many who have grown up with struggling agriculture, there is no solution or launch that we have not heard of. The only initiative that will reinvigorate the farmers will be the one that puts money in their pockets and not just promises.

People have come with promises to eliminate middlemen, but farmers say, “I need the money now, and even if the cost is higher in other areas, I have no way of transporting or accessing credit that can afford me the luxury of waiting.”

How can tech sort the market problem? Can it put money in the hands of smallholder farmers?

As we demand more results from the tech companies raising and committing more money, we also need to support the base, whether with local knowledge or through the village networks. If we are to see results, then the agricultural extension officers with years of experience wallowing in an irrelevant sector or wondering where they fit in will need to step up.

We will challenge the tech companies to provide employment and contracts to local companies and people with local knowledge, but the people must also be ready.

AFTER PITCHES, GIVE US RESUKTS

Mama Ngilu and other office holders are doing their part in encouraging farmers to increase their produce, now they need the support that technology has promised to deliver.

Technology will allow farmers to use data analytics, and predictive artificial intelligence tools provide an opportunity to deliver more accurate recommendations to farmers directly to their phones either through smartphone apps or traditional USSD for phones with no internet.

Data such as soil characteristics, crops grown on the land in previous farming cycles, popular pests and diseases and traditional weather patterns, etc. can be analysed to give farmers recommendations for practices to maximise their crop output.

We have heard the agri-tech pitches and the market problems, we are now waiting to see the results; sort the supply chain problems and put money in the hands of smallholder farmers.

The writer is the CEO of Fireside. Group, an engineering solutions provider.

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