Why digital technologies are out of reach for smallholder farmers

Kenyan farmers are yet to fully embrace tech solutions in the agricultural sector. [iStockphoto]

The Lack of digital literacy skills among smallholder farmers and the complexity of some applications have been mentioned by a think tank among the reasons why tech solutions in the agricultural sector are not being fully embraced.

The cost of smartphones and poor infrastructure where rural areas are not connected to either the national grid or network coverage has also been blamed.

The Kenya Institute for Public Policy and Research Analysis (Kippra) in a research publication dated February 1, 2024 estimates that only 20 to 30 per cent of Kenyan farmers adopt digital agricultural technologies.

This is the case despite Kenya offering 95 agricultural services which is almost double the number in other African markets such as Nigeria.

Kippra cites digital marketing platforms such as Mkulima young, Mfarm, Farmer’s Market Kenya, Digifarm, iShamba, Vuuna, Ujuzikilimo and Taimba which it says collectively contribute to market access by reducing information asymmetry, facilitating direct transactions, and creating more efficient and transparent agricultural value chains.

These platforms empower farmers with information, networking opportunities, and direct connections to buyers, ultimately improving their profitability and sustainability in the marketplace.

In the publication titled Enhancing Market Access Through Digital Technologies Among Smallholder Farmers in Kenya, Kippra states that inconsistent and unreliable power supply in most rural areas limits the efficient use of digital technologies.This infrastructural gap hinders farmers’ engagement with online markets, real-time information and data collection and the operation of digital tools and equipment.

It adds that policy emphasis on enhancing power infrastructure and implementing sustainable energy solutions is paramount.

“Reliable electricity in remote farming communities is pivotal for unlocking the full potential of technology, enabling smallholders to access markets, make informed decisions, and participate effectively in the agricultural produce market, ultimately fostering economic growth and sustainability in rural Kenya,” the research reads.

Kippra also cites limited affordability and; access to smartphones and computers, hinder rural farmers from utilizing digital tools.

“The choice to use a digital agricultural platform depends on the farmers’ ability to access and use the existing technologies. Farmers facing financial constraints may lack the necessary tools to engage in digital agriculture, creating a digital divide that exacerbates information asymmetry, limiting farmers’ ability to access online markets and make informed decisions,” the research states.

Kippra says policymakers must prioritize initiatives that promote affordable devices and digital literacy, bridging the technological gap.

“Addressing this issue is vital for ensuring equitable participation in the digital agricultural ecosystem, enabling smallholders to access online markets, receive real-time information, and make informed decisions in the agricultural produce market, thus contributing to their economic empowerment and overall development,” says the state backed think tank.

Kippra says most smallholder farmers lack the digital literacy skills required to properly use digital tools and platforms. As a result, limited technical proficiency and limited knowledge may result in less use of smartphones compared to simpler feature phones.

“The complexity of some apps, such as a complicated registration process that requires an email address (Ulima app), discourages farmers from using them, which lowers uptake and usage rates,” Kippra explains.

In addition, it says, smallholder farmers are deemed to have a low level of education and are more likely to be digitally illiterate.

“This makes it difficult for them to interact with applications and increases the likelihood that text-based apps will not work well if the farmers cannot read.,” says Kippra.

The other reason is that other apps come with subscription fees, which farmers may not be able to afford.

Kippra references the Kenya Agricultural Marketing Strategy (AMS) 2023-2032 which highlights leveraging digital technologies to enhance market access for small farmers.

The document outlines a comprehensive approach to integrate mobile applications, precision farming technologies, and e-commerce platforms into the agricultural landscape.

“The strategy envisions that these digital tools will play a crucial role in disseminating market information, facilitating financial transactions, and optimizing supply chain management for small farmers,” says Kippra.

Some of the policy interventions proposed by Kippra in enhancing market access through digital technologies among smallholder farmers include:  prioritisation of investments in expanding reliable Internet connectivity and electricity supply in rural areas is key to enhancing digital access and; capacity building and continuous training of farmers is needed for them to interact with new agricultural technologies and ensure continuity of use and adoption of new technologies.

“There is a need for affordable feature phone initiatives that send comprehensive, timely information to farmers, eliminating the need for Internet connectivity and smartphones,” the think tank says.

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