DigiFarm – Technology that bolsters change in Kenya
“Safaricom’s purpose is to transform lives through the use of mobile technology. We have a customer base of more than 26 million subscribers in Kenya. We’re therefore ideally positioned to leverage technologies that will empower Kenyans with opportunities and give them the right tools for economic growth.”
Fred Kiio, Head of Commercial Operations and Segments at Safaricom, is passionate when he talks about his company’s role in Kenya. When we look at the company’s ongoing achievements in the field of technology and innovation (amongst others, being the home of the renowned Mobile Money service – M‑PESA), it is easy to see why Safaricom is acknowledged as Kenya’s leading communications service provider and important contributor towards the country’s economic growth by empowering people.
Digifarm – the company’s latest innovation using mobile technology in the field of agriculture – certainly supports this statement. This mobile phone-based solution allows government and service providers in the field of agriculture to interact with and offer agricultural-related services to smallholder farmers in Kenya who, previously, had no access to any support structures.
Where Digifarm started
According to Kiio, Kenya’s agricultural production relies mainly on output from smallholder farmers. Farming activities, however, take place in isolation and in an uncoordinated manner, with the families of smallholder farmers fulfilling the role of an unskilled workforce on the farms. The responsibility to take over the farming activities is passed on from one generation to the next.
“We at Safaricom started to ask questions. Why should smallholder farmers remain smallholder farmers? What can we do to change the status quo and to help them to improve their agricultural output and quality of life?” says Kiio.
Safaricom identified five reasons for the status quo:
- A lack of quality statistical data on farms and farming activities in the country means that customised support programmes cannot be offered to farmers.
- A lack of adequate extension services for smallholder farmers. In general, smallholder farmers are not skilled in modern farming techniques and have little knowledge about ways to optimise their land, livestock or crops. They, furthermore, are not aware of or do not have access to resources that are available to help them to improve their farming activities.
- Smallholder farmers do not have access to quality and affordable agricultural essentials or input such as seed, fertiliser and pesticides. The industry is also exposed to tainted inputs which expose the smallholder farmers to losses on yields.
- Smallholder farmers do not have access to financial services, as banks see them as risks when it comes to offering loans for farming activities.
- Middlemen (brokers) often take advantage of smallholder farmers’ lack of awareness of marketplace facilities where they can sell their produce at profitable prices; neither do the smallholder farmers have access to these markets. This often leads to loss of produce and loss of revenue to the farmers.
“But we also knew that the opportunity for improvement was to be found in the fact that 90% of smallholder farmers own mobile phones,” says Kiio. “All we had to do was to leverage mobile technology in order to empower the smallholder farmer to become economically active and to contribute towards the long-term economic growth of our country. This approach gave birth to Digifarm.”
Developing the solution
To leverage technology successfully in as little time as possible, it’s imperative to involve the right partner right from the start. For the technical support in developing Digifarm, Safaricom as holder of the intellectual property, appointed Mezzanine, a South African company that delivers mobile-enabled solutions to companies doing business in Africa. Safaricom and Mezzanine already held partnerships in other Safaricom projects in Kenya and the fact that Mezzanine has a regional office in Kenya with Stephen Kinuthia as Mezzanine’s Regional Manager (East Africa) in charge, made this decision even easier.
Digifarm development started in October 2016 and the pilot phase was introduced in three Kenyan counties a mere three months later in January 2017. The aim of the pilot phase was to get the solution ready for national adoption and to bring the ecosystem partners on board:
- Safaricom/Mezzanine for platform provision
- Iprocure Kenya for inputs provision
- Arifu for learning content provision
- Mercy Corps - Kenya (Agrifin) for bringing the smallholder farmers on board and to provide functionality insights.
Digifarm – changing the Kenyan agricultural and social landscape
Digifarm offers an easy-to-use, one-stop service to Kenya’s smallholder farmers. Farmers register on the Digifarm platform and record details about the size of their farms, the nature of their farming activities (value chains), including the number of livestock that they own. This information is used to ensure that farmers receive support via Digifarm relevant to their specific farming activities. It also serves to build a national database of farming activities in Kenya that can be used for long-term planning and other projects.
Once registered and as part of Phase 1 of the Digifarm rollout, farmers have access via mobile phone to a host of agricultural and financial services that the ecosystem partners offer. These include, amongst others, electronic vouchers to buy inputs at discounted prices, access to extension services via the learning module to gain practical guidance and support, training on various farming activities, advice and guidance on timeous and the correct use of agricultural input, even offering financial guidelines, advice and training.
Through Digifarm farmers now also have access to financial support. Using Digifarm’s loan module, farmers can apply for small loans particularly for farming inputs such as, amongst others, fertilizer, livestock and feed. These loans come in the form of credit vouchers that they use when they buy input at the iProcure depots that are linked to Digifarm. In this way Digifarm ensures that loan amounts are used for the right reasons and it assists the farmers to maintain control over their spending.
Digifarm’s first phase of implementation revolves mainly around the ecosystem partners making contact with the farmers. Phase 2, to be introduced early in 2018, will offer farmer-to-ecosystem-partner interaction which will include, amongst others, making enquiries about market facilities to sell their produce. It will also include a smartphone app that farmers can use to send photographs of their crops to service providers to receive advice on crop treatment.
Already 167 000 smallholder farmers registered during the pilot phase from January to November 2017, while the aim is to register 1 million farmers nationally by the end of 2018. Kenya’s smallholder farmer segment consists of an estimated 7 million farmers. With each farming household consisting of around 5 – 6 family members, Digifarm can directly affect the lives of around 42 million people once fully functional and deployed nationally.
Digifarm works on feature phones as well as smartphones and farmers do not pay for using the service.
“Africa stands at a point where agriculture is no longer a hobby or something that you do when you retire,” says Mezzanine’s Stephen Kinuthia. “Factors such as the world-wide demand for food and food security, climate change, food export opportunities and the yet undeveloped potential of agriculture in Africa, highlight the need to develop and empower smallholder farmers to become fully-fledged contributors to agriculture. This has now become possible with Digifarm. Safaricom has given our country the technology and has opened up the channels to achieve this. For Mezzanine to be a part of this is extremely gratifying.”
But Digifarm comprises more than merely agricultural efficiency. This becomes clear when Kinuthia refers to the involvement of families as a whole when it comes to subsistence farming in rural areas. “If you uplift one farmer, you uplift his or her whole family,” he says.
But Kinuthia’s viewpoint also extends to those who live in urban areas when he points out that by improving the quality and availability of produce, you also improve the quality of life of those who buy the produce. And – even more important – ensuring a sustainable income for the smallholder farmer eliminates the need for those who live in the urban areas to financially support their families on the farms.
For Kiio who was brought up in a typical rural community where he saw how subsistence farming kept younger generations from gaining academic qualifications and how they had no choice but to take over the farming activities from the older generations, Digifarm offers more than merely agricultural benefits. “We need to elevate farming to be seen as a career,” he says. “I look forward to the day when children can go to schools and other institutions to first get an education and then become farmers. By uplifting farmers and their families through Digifarm, I’m confident that my dream will become true.”
Safaricom’s Digifarm has shown how a business with vision, combined with the leverage of technology can make a difference in more than one way. What started off as a solution to empower smallholder farmers in Kenya, has the potential to establish farming as a sought-after career choice. Even more important, it has the power to improve the quality of life for families and create awareness of and opportunities for academic education – an outcome least expected, but certainly the most important of all.