Technology vital in solving supply chain challenges in agriculture

Kenya's agricultural sector has been the Achilles heel of the economy for the past three decades.

After recording robust growth in several sectors in the late 1970s through to late 80's, productivity in the last two decades has been stagnant.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) the sector grew by 4.4 per cent on average over the past five years. This is much less than the 13 per cent and 10.7 per cent growth posted by the mining and construction sectors respectively over the same period of time.  

This is particularly distressing considering the fact the sector is the single largest job-creator. Six out of ten Kenyans earn a living from agriculture and more are employed indirectly through the value chain.

This means reduced growth in the sector pulls back not only overall economic growth, but efforts to achieve income redistribution.

Part of the reduced productivity has been attributed to reduced arable land as well as sustained rural to urban migration that pulls labour and capital away from rural farmlands to urban centers.

At the same time, lack of or inconsistent government support in some agricultural subsectors like sugar, cereals and fisheries has left farmers without modern technology and know-how to compete with their heavily subsidized in other countries.

Several organisations in both the private and public sectors are now presenting technology as the magic bullet for these and other logistical challenges facing the majorly small-scale farmers in the country.

For decades, small-scale farmers in Kenya have lived with the irony of producing the country's nutritional needs as well as propping up the economy while at the same time stuck at the bottom of the income pyramid.

This economic imbalance has seen farmers lack adequate financial and skills support leaving them reliant on rain-fed production and outdated farming practices that erode profit margins.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.

Several companies including Safaricom are now at several stages of piloting solutions to restore the vital extension services programme available to farmers in the past. 

Earlier this year Safaricom launched 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.

Through the platform, farmers register with details on the size of their land, geographic and climatic conditions as well as key data on their farming operations such as size of land and types of crops.

Safaricom then uses this information alongside data analytics techniques to provide farmers with advice on the best farming methods specifically molded to their operations.

Safaricom has also partnered with companies that produce farming inputs and set up several DigiFarm depots across the country where registered farmers can get access to key inputs at subsidized prices.

The Digifarm depots also serve as capacity building centers for farmers seeking advice from certified agronomists. Later, farmers will also be able to receive crop insurance through Digifarm.

Adopting solutions like DigiFarm on a wide scale is the best bet the country has in fast tracking job creation and industrial development. In a recent report the World Bank says the greatest fall in poverty in Kenya has been recorded at the bottom end of the earnings pyramid and attributed to agricultural growth.

According to the World Bank, Kenya's poverty data for the last ten years shows a decrease of 2.2 per cent for Kenyans living in households engaged in agriculture. Households engaged in agriculture dropped from 50.7 per cent in 2005 to 47.8 percent in 2015.

"The large share of households in agriculture combined with a high pass-through rate in the sector drives the poverty reduction impact also because most poor are in the agricultural sector," explained the Bank in part.

And since the technological solution is largely driven by mobile, adoption is easier to drive with more than 40 million Kenyans having access to mobile phones and more than 30 per cent of them on smart phones.

Kenya still enjoys ample access to wide tracts of arable land and demand for food far outstrips the supply. Pictures of farmers feeding tomatoes to cows or dumping potatoes or milk because of glut should thus not exist. Boosting value addition and supply chains however is key to ensuring farmers get paid for their toil and consumers get the best value for their money.