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Why it’s tough selling farm produce online

ENTERPRISE
By Graham Kajilwa | September 15th 2021

A farmer takes a photo of a pineapple farm.

Agriculture’s online penetration is proving hard. This is despite the sector being  Kenya’s backbone contributing over 30 per cent to the economy and employing at least 60 per cent of the informal workers. 

A new report details the challenges farmers face to sell their products online on platforms that are not as friendly to perishable products.

The report titled Platform Livelihoods: The quality of Kenyan youth’s digital experiences in logistics, e-commerce, farming, and the creative sectors by Qhala and Caribou Digital supported by Mastercard Foundation opines that the most affected are small scale farmers.

Digital market places like MkulimaYoung and Farmers Market, and social agriculture where one publicises their produce on social media as frequently as possible to increase visibility are some of the ways farmers tap into the online space.

The report documents that the majority of farmers use social agriculture more. While digital agriculture presented itself as the alternative to traditional marketing that is controlled by brokers, it is still a tall order to break through on the online space.

Farmers who use the formal marketplaces noted that these (online) platforms are not well known hence slows down sales. It, therefore, causes farmers to go informal by delving into social media.

Largely unknown marketplaces

“The majority of the farmers who use these platforms had the impression that agriculture platforms are not widely known by either farmers or customers, hence their slow sales. Additionally, these marketplaces are known for specific types of produce, some of which get more traction than others,” the report reads.

Farmers, therefore, rely on community and social support via online groups to share knowledge and act as a marketplace.

“This sector is also characterised by quick and aggressive online marketing that wanes over time as the produce inventory decreases or the farmer establishes a market,” notes the report.

While online platforms connect farmers to the market, the report notes that they still depend on offline markets for direct selling, or research to tap into high-end markets. 

“While formal platforms are widely available, none of them offer end-to-end transactions; instead, they facilitate search and discovery, leaving payment, fulfilment, and logistics services to the farmer,” it explains. “This lack of end-to-end transactions erodes farmers’ experience on the payment due to unreliable clients. As a result, farmers have to get creative in last-mile delivery and require down payments to ensure earnings.”

The research was informed by the increasing number of young farmers, exacerbated by Covid-19. The main focus was on small-scale farmers whose sector does not have intermediaries to help them sell their crops.

This category involves farmers selling on online marketplaces, individuals farmers using social media, websites, and groups who do farm to fork selling with an online presence.

WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the most commonly used platforms. However, Instagram is the least used.

Amassing followers, branding, sharing the process of farming to build credibility with clients, and referral-based system are some of the social media strategies.

While Instagram is the least used, other platforms offer different advantages for different farmers.

For example, a tomato and watermelon farmer notes that he tried Facebook but his account was not that active so he moved to Instagram.

“But when it comes to farming, Instagram doesn’t really work because even the people on Instagram are mostly young people and for them, they’re not interested in farming,” explained the farmer as quoted in the research.

Another farmer who sell broccoli spinach, bell peppers and purple cabbage says Facebook posts are likely to be read by friends and the sharing is not as wide as Twitter. He (Fred) says on Twitter it also depends on when you post.

Twitter vs Instagram

“Twitter has more serious and open followers. Instagram is easier to sell if you are buying the ads to reach a wide target but even if you see most of the pages on Instagram, agricultural pages, are not mostly for selling; they are just there to redirect traffic,” he opines.

The research notes that agricultural produce is perishable with a short shelf-life hence farmers have to learn the dynamics of the market to succeed, usually using rapid and aggressive online marketing to make sales.

“However, as farmers build a reliable client base or farm produce decreases, this strategy becomes less common. Some farmers eventually use digital marketing skills to become online aggregators for other farmers’ products,” the research reads.

It adds that the farming cycle is a highly engaging endeavour that needs the availability of a farm, farming skills, and a ready market.

“Farmers alluded to getting a higher return compared to pay from previous employment or lack of income. Most in this sector want to grow their business, expand their farms, venture into new produce, and include productive farming methods,” the research reads.

The research notes that technology is also seen as a key component of these growth plans.

“Farmers should have technical backgrounds, work to set up websites to manage bookkeeping, orders, and payment, and to provide digital market linkages for farmers,” it reads. 

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