VICTOR BWIRE: Digital solutions key to unlocking agriculture potential

According to the World Bank, Kenya accounts for 23 percent of all African Agri-tech start-ups in Africa.

In Summary

•Digital platforms and innovations have not been fully exploited.

•It’s noted the leading players in this is the private sector with the public sector lagging, which would also explain low uptake.

Farmers in Njabini in Kinangop constituency.
Farmers in Njabini in Kinangop constituency.
Image: George Murage

While Kenya is a forerunner in Africa as a digital innovation hub and home to many innovative start-ups on digital agriculture, the agricultural sector is yet to achieve significant transformation.

Digital platforms and innovations have not been fully exploited for e-commerce support and delivery of services, which is a bit disheartening, especially when the country is grappling with food insecurity.

Several studies done in the country have pointed out that unless the country aggressively finds solutions to dealing with challenges identified, which include, financial services, unstable markets and poor prices, lack of access to alternative energy sources for agriculture and climate-smart agriculture advisory services, the much needed and potential in digital solutions for the sector will remain a mirage.

This is not, however, to say that nothing is happening. Several innovative interventions, especially from the private sector, are notable.  

I was reading some very encouraging work by CABE Africa Limited (CAL) partners, who has innovated the iSubira digital platform that addresses the physical agri-food supply chains in Kenya and beyond to address their specific challenges and opportunities. 

A study by the Technology, Markets and Investment for the Low Carbon and Climate Resilient Development (TEMARIN) project reports that the country has more digital for agriculture enterprises and users than any other country in Africa.

  The study revealed that with over 100 digital startups and financial services in Kenya, just like in the rest of Africa, there is low diffusion of digital technologies in the sector.

This has been attributed to, among other things, low internet connectivity, high prices of services and equipment, low digital literacy levels, limited capabilities among start-ups and SMEs low relevance of the digital services provided and poor market intelligence.

It’s noted the leading players in the private sector with the public sector lagging, which would also explain low uptake. 

The study notes that while Kenya has nearly 64 ICT solution start-ups and more innovations continue, unfortunately, the initial hype around the potential of ICT in agriculture has died down because many of the solutions so far have failed to deliver any real change in the agricultural sector.

Another study by a group of researchers published in Smart Agricultural Technology entitled “What really impedes the scaling out of digital services for agriculture? A Kenyan users’ perspective” notes that despite the promise of digital services for agriculture firms to unlock agricultural outcomes, little is there to show. 

The challenges identified in the study included technological accessibility, service discoverability/affordability and service value propositions.

According to the World Bank, Kenya accounts for 23 per cent of all African Agri-tech start-ups in Africa.

Some key promising approaches include service delivery for smallholders, financial services, enterprise development, market access, data analytics and climate-smart agriculture. 

Literature shows that the agricultural sector employs more than 40 per cent of the total population in Kenya, while products from the sector – food exports account for 65 per cent of export revenues for the country.

Huge opportunities exist, and several interventions are happening in the country.

For example, I have read the work being done by CABE Africa Limited (CAL) partners, through the iSubira digital platform and jointly with KALRO and the Rice Promotion Program (RPP) of the Ministry of Agriculture to improve the efficiency and profitability of the rice value chain by strengthening seed systems and market.

Similarly, working with the specific business networks that support the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) grantees under the Keeping Food Market Working. 

The platform offers integrated solutions in e-commerce, delivery service and Social (Chama) loans to drive greater agribusiness efficiencies and profitability by leveraging the role of government and other technical assistance bodies in accelerating start-ups, research, advisory services, and finance.

Potential users can access services through a mobile application and backend application that is web-based for monitoring purposes. 

The platform also offers quality assurance and tracking services to minimise mismatches between demand and supply in the agri-food business ecosystem. 

Scaling up the impact of digital and disruptive technologies on Kenyan Agriculture requires systematic investment in knowledge, innovation and incubation ecosystem in Kenya. 

First, it’s important to create a digital ecosystem for extension, to give more farmers greater access to learning that can improve their farming.

Secondly, it is vital to support more transparency in market prices. Advisories and apps that provide access to price information will allow farmers to get prices on their own without a middleman, foster more competition, and put more revenues in farmers’ pockets.

Third, precision agriculture is a game-changer, and more effort should be put into making these technologies more accessible and affordable.

The drones, sensors and other tools can make a difference in farmer productivity and should be in the hands of more farmers. 

Finally, there should be a greater focus on introducing entrepreneurial approaches into Africa’s agriculture higher education system.

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