The Smallholder Farmers Digital Ecosystems Coalition has recently launched a report providing findings from digital ecosystem assessments conducted mid-2022 in two case study countries, Kenya and Zambia. The study was commissioned by the Netherlands Food Partnership on behalf of the coalition, which includes Rabobank, IDH, Syngenta Foundation, and IFAD, and aimed to explore the impact of digital services and platforms on smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries.
The report focused on both the supply and demand sides of the ecosystem, conducting interviews and organizing a workshop with donors, service providers, government, research institutions, and smallholder farmers in focus group discussions. It aimed to answer the question of what concrete short and longer-term interventions in smallholder digital ecosystems could foster the scaling and sustainability of digital platforms. The assessment provides valuable insights into the current state of digital ecosystems in Kenya and Zambia. It highlights the challenges and opportunities that smallholder farmers face when accessing digital services and solutions.
Key findings Zambia
- Who are the champions in Zambia’s digital ecosystem?
From the supply side, the champions are Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), also referred to as Telcos. They enable a range of mobile-based services for farming communities. These include financial services via mobile (i.e. mobile money) and the dissemination of agricultural information via mobile. These services are accessed by farmers directly or via intermediaries such as agro-dealers, Mobile Money agents, or young tech savvy farmers.
From the demand side, farmers who are moving up the ladder, who perceive farming as an economic activity for their livelihood, who have some level of education and who have been exposed to media platforms tend to be the champions in terms of adopting digital technologies. In Zambia they are called emerging farmers and are predominantly involved in integrated value chains (i.e. dairy, horticulture) or grow for export (i.e. soya beans).
Zambia is considered an upcoming or mid-track country with a promising and fast-growing digital ecosystem. But for advancing digital agriculture at national level, the country lacks a clear plan on how they want to achieve it. Only a few small and isolated initiatives are implemented without a bigger picture. One major gap is the fact that the country does not have a specific digital agriculture policy or strategy to guide all the efforts in a coordinated manner.
Internet connectivity in Zambia remains scarce in rural areas where most SHF live. Where it’s available it’s deemed expensive by farming communities. Zambian farmers tend to be older hence prefer traditional ICT channels such as Radio and TV as source of agricultural information because it comes at no cost and in their local languages.
The adoption of mobile financial services is increasing fast in Zambia. However, charges imposed by Telcos who provide financial services (i.e. mobile money) were reported to be high for an average farmer. Moreover, the number of fraudsters and scammers trying to con farmers who are using mobile payment is also increasing.
Few SHF, mostly young or educated, posses smartphones and thus are able to use social networks such Facebook and WhatsApp to access agricultural content (i.e. YouTube channels for agricultural best practices) or advertise their produce mostly via WhatsApp groups. Overall, there is reluctance to pay for digital agricultural services. Farmers prefer free services except a few emerging farmers who are willing to pay for market linkage digital solutions in order to sell more and increase their profitability.
Key findings Kenya
- Who are the champions in Kenya’s digital ecosystem?
Overall champions: Mainstream social media platforms owned by Alphabet and Meta
At the digital agriculture platform level: Platforms and services with local intermediaries in the communities who hold trusted relationships with farmers and extension agents
At grassroots level: Transitioning farmers with medium-level digital literacy; who own a smartphone and can purchase data bundles; who produce for more integrated value chains such as dairy, horticulture, coffee; and who produce conventionally with the use of agricultural inputs.
Despite what may be expected based on literacy, income, tech. savviness, and innovativeness levels, commercial farmers are not champions of digital agriculture platforms.
A mismatch exists between the ecosystem that is portrayed in the literature and institutional reports on Kenya versus what is visible and used by actors at grassroots level, which raises questions about the Return on Investments in digital agriculture in Kenya.
- Agricultural specific platforms and services versus mainstream social media:
Farmers use WhatsApp and Facebook to obtain information, buy and sell; some farmers also Youtube and Google search
Adoption of digital agriculture platforms in the advisory category (e.g. Yara connect, ICow, AgriBot, Ishamba) usually follows a recommendation of a platform by a trusted human intermediary
If not cash-based, financial transactions rely on Safaricom’s M-PESA platform. Many other digital financial services, like credit services, operate on their own platform but rely on M-PESA to perform transactions.
Farmers verify information obtained via social media and agricultural platforms with their most trusted source of information, the public extension agent. This raises the question if digital agricultural advisory reduces or increases the burden on traditional public extension.
Farmers use WhatsApp groups/WhatsApp status and Facebook groups and timelines as agri e-commerce platforms to sell produce belonging to intermediary-based value chains. The lack of transparency and traceability that come with these informal marketing channels creates risks and uncertainty and some kind of rating or verification system for buyers and sellers may be required
An unanswered question is if it is unwanted that farmers currently prefer mainstream social media over agriculture specific platforms and services, and if interventions to change this are possible.
Data governance and data management are, although relatively new topics, actively picked up at a national level. This is timely, seeing that farmers become increasingly critical about data sharing and ownership. Yet, to succeed, these initiatives need support and adoption from digital service providers and enablers throughout the sector.