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Farming in Africa: the digital revolution that is set to transform agriculture

By Aisha Majid, The Telegraph

Until two years ago, the only way James Kinyua knew which medicine to buy if one of his cows got sick was to call a vet, which would entail a wait of up to two days and a cost of 1,000 shillings (£8). Or he could just take a guess.  

But when one of his calves fell ill last April James turned to his phone, using Wefarm, a network that brings together small-scale farmers in Africa.

“The animal had bloody diarrhoea – I knew that if I didn’t get it treated it could die,” says James, a 47-year-old farmer who lives off his immaculately-kept half-acre farm in Kirinyaga, a verdant farming region on the slopes of Mount Kenya. 

Sending his question via text, it wasn’t long before farmers across Kenya began replying with the name of the drug that he needed.

Since joining the platform, James spends half an hour a day on Wefarm, both asking and answering questions. He says the information and advice he’s received from other farmers has helped him earn enough to keep his children in education. 

“It’s very helpful as you get answers instantly,” says James. 

A simple text may seem mundane but a little information can go a long way in much of Africa. 

“The majority of farmers don’t have access to the internet and even when they do the content is not relevant and is written for a western audience,” says Kenny Ewan, CEO of London-based Wefarm.

“Wefarm aims to rewrite that information from an African point of view,” he says.

Farmers in Africa struggle to keep up with the continent’s booming population and growing demand for food. Productivity has only been inching up since the 1960s, while the population has doubled in the last three decades.  

Up to 80 per cent of the continent’s food is produced by smallholders, most of whom own just a hectare or two of land that’s farmed with no fertiliser, no high yield seeds and no irrigation. They’re at the mercy of both nature and poor policy.  

During the colonial years, investments in agriculture were scant and in the decades since independence most governments have put in little money. And although sub-Saharan Africa might have half of the world’s uncultivated arable land, most is not irrigated and large tracts are off-limits due to conflict.
 

Farming practices have barely kept pace with new developments and climate change has only made things worse for the vast majority who rely on rains that might come late or not at all.

As a result, yields in Africa are a quarter of the world average and lag far behind those of Asia, which benefited from a spectacular Green Revolution that transformed rice and wheat production in the 1960s.

Some believe that the digital revolution is instead bringing hope for farmers in Africa 

“Africa has huge problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. We can’t wait to solve them and we don’t have the money to go the traditional way of building major roads before we can communicate with a group of farmers in rural areas,” says Ousmane Badiane, Africa director at the International Food Policy Research Institute. 

“That’s where digital technologies come in. They allow us to overcome those obstacles faster and at a lower cost.” 

The rapid spread of mobile phones across the continent is fuelling the start of a revolution in farming that promises to overcome the geographic, social and economic isolation of rural smallholder farmers and provide them with the information and services they desperately need

A recent report counted nearly 400 different digital agricultural technology – or “agtech” – solutions being used in Africa, many of them designed for basic mobile phones. 

These include platforms that allow farmers to order seeds and fertilisers via text, watch videos on new farming techniques, get information on weather and market prices and even analyse their soil to know which fertiliser to apply.  

Almost a quarter are based in Kenya where the M-Pesa mobile money revolution has made it easier for companies to piggyback onto the country’s tech-friendly attitudes and ICT infrastructure.

Making a viable business out of a fragmented, risk-averse market of smallholder farmers might be tough, but some companies are starting to crack it. 

Among them is Twiga Foods, a Kenyan company that solves market access issues by using technology to link farmers in rural areas with the many small-scale vendors in and around Nairobi. 

According to Grant Brooke, Twiga’s co-founder, the company’s basic premise is to bring together buyers to give farmers a reliable market. 

“If we can aggregate the purchasing power of Africa’s cities we can generate a lot of knock-on effects to stabilise agricultural markets for Africa’s farmers,” he says.  

Since its creation in 2014 Twiga Foods has grown from supplying two tonnes of bananas a day, to a country-wide operation supplying 2,500 vendors a day with more than 1,000 tonnes of fresh produce. 

Forty-five year old Raphael Taraiya, who grows tomatoes and watermelons in Makueni, a semi-arid county a few hours drive from Nairobi, is one of the 17,000 farmers on Twiga’s platform. 

With scarce water supplies and frequent droughts, Makueni seems an unlikely place to have a farm. 

“The prices the middlemen offered me were low but I was forced to take them because I’ve got no transport to take my produce to market and I can only keep it for a few days before it spoils,” says Raphael. Sometimes, his produce would even go rotten while waiting for a middleman who might come days later than promised.   

Although the company doesn’t promise to buy every harvest from every small farmer on its books, Raphael says he sells 90 per cent of his produce to Twiga. 

But the complicated nature of farming which depends on a whole chain of things being right, inevitably means that as quickly as technology solves one problem, another one comes up.

Leesa Shrader, a digital inclusion expert at international non-governmental organisation Mercy Corps, says the issue is that smallholder farmers are at the end of a very long inefficient chain with many broken links. 

“No single service is going to do everything a farmer needs – so you could give them a loan but if they don’t have the inputs [such as seeds, fertiliser and pesticides] or access to a good market, the loan doesn’t do them any good. It could increase their indebtedness and drive them deeper into poverty,” says Ms Shrader.

To tackle this, solutions such as Digifarm, a mobile platform for smallholder farmers, bundle together services such as skills training, loans, insurance and access to buyers in a “one-stop shop” used by farmers such as Theresia Muoti Yelo from Makueni. 

Although the failure of the rains meant that there was almost no green gram to harvest from the seeds she had bought from Digifarm, she’s confident that the platform’s insurance payout will see her through. 

Yet, while digital technology might be helping to turn around the fortunes of some farmers, not everyone believes innovation can replace government investments in things such as giving farmers deeds to their lands, literacy and communications. 

Taita Ngetich is one of a growing number of visionary Kenyan entrepreneurs that have helped earn the country the nickname ‘Silicon Savannah’.

As CEO of Illuminum Greenhouses, a company that automates irrigation using solar-powered sensors that can be controlled by farmers from their mobile phones, Mr Ngetich has clearly taken his own punt on agtech. Nevertheless, the young entrepreneur is realistic about the limits of technology.

“You need roads, you need electricity – you need basic infrastructure,” he says from the company’s office in one of Nairobi’s sleek tech hubs. “Even if you have an app that connects people to markets and you have a sensor that shows production, if farmers can’t take that produce to the market it’s pointless.”

It’s a dilemma 50-year-old Jospehine Katumbi Musau knows well. She’s among a group of farmers in Makueni who have been using weather information sent by text to local intermediaries to help them make planting decisions. 

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