For decades, small-scale farmers in Africa have been confronted with the irony of propping up the continent’s economy while remaining at the bottom of the income pyramid.
In Kenya for example, six out of ten people earn a living through Agriculture with the majority of them practicing at small-scale subsistence farming and making additional income from selling the surplus.
This economic imbalance has seen farmers lack adequate financial and skills support leaving them to struggle for years with inadequacies like relying on rain-fed production and outdated farming practices that eat into their profit margins.
The results of the sector’s neglect have also been felt beyond the small plots of farmland that sustain millions of families. Failed rains in 2015 and 2016, for example, saw Kenyan farmers lose more than sh16billion in foregone revenue dragging down overall economic growth and leading to a record increase in inflation.
The sector has thus been ripe for disruption and Safaricom’s latest effort involves an ambitious effort to ensure Kenyan small-scale farmers get their dues.
“This is the biggest opportunity we have to transform the agricultural sector,” explains Mr. Fred Kioo, head of Safaricom’s Agri-biz department.
“Up to 68 percent of agricultural earnings actually go to brokers and we need to make sure farming is profitable to the farmers themselves.”
To this end, Safaricom has rolled out Digifarm, a platform that helps farmers scale the production, supply and distribution challenges that prevent them from achieving the full potential of their planting cycles.
“Digifarm evolved from mAgri-business which is a new department formed within our enterprise business to focus specifically on the agriculture segment,” explains Mr. Kioo.
Mr. Kioo who has been with Safaricom for 13 years working across the strategy, business development and commercial departments is optimistic that Digifarm is an opportunity to develop a disruptive solution whose impacts will ripple across other segments of the economy.
“This means we have to understand the challenges farmers face on a day to day basis and find a logical solution leveraging on technology and the mobile phone is the best tool for this,” he explains.
“We noticed that the most commonly used tool is the mobile phone and rather than invent the wheel we are delivering the entire vision through mobile phones.”
Digifarm has been in development for the better part of the last two years running on a pilot that has so far brought on board 672,000 farmers with 7,000 loans issued so far.
Farmers get registered through a *283# USSD number and provide information relating to the nature of their farming operations such as land size, location, and weather conditions.
The information is then collated and matched against scientific data on the best practice that will result in the highest yield.
“The idea is to get to a point where a farmer knows what they should plant, where, when and how leveraging on scientific data and not what they have been told by the previous generation of farmers,” explains Mr. Kioo.
With the agricultural sector predominantly composed of old people, using mobile technology also helps bring in more young people into farming cutting down on the high rate of youth unemployment.
“After we have identified what needs to be done the next phase of the programme is to walk with the farmer through the journey,” explains Mr. Kioo. “We will provide capital in terms of certified seeds specific to farmers’ regions, conduct soil-testing and guide farmers on fertilizer to be used.”
Through the platform, Safaricom will partner with companies that produce farming inputs and at the same time linkages to markets and agro-processors solving a challenge that puts off many farmers.
This will be done through Digifarm depots which have been opened across the country and serve as capacity building centers for farmers. Safaricom recently opened one such depot in Eldoret, at the heart of Kenya’s food basket. The depots are stocked with certified inputs at affordable rates with farmers accessing them either through mobile tokens or paying by cash.
The depots have trained specialists who will also serve as extension officers to answer farmers’ queries. Later farmers will also be able to receive crop insurance through Digifarm.
“In the next few months we will have the ability to analyze the data from our farmers and create a supply system where they are guaranteed a market for their harvest,” explains Mr. Kioo.
“Africa sits on a massive opportunity with the ability to feed the whole world and all we need to do is change how we have been doing business. We’ll have succeeded the day university graduates chose to focus on farming instead of seeking employment.”