Scaling up Kenya's online services for one million more farmers

At her farm in Ngong, Kenya, Ednah Chelagat starts her day by recording the amount of feed she gives her cows onto her mobile phone. She started using the DigiCow app in February and says that it has helped her transform the way she farms entirely.

Now, Ednah keeps track digitally of when and how much she feeds, milks and breeds her cows. DigiCow can then produce detailed reports on changes to her cows' health and milk production, so she can adjust her feeding process as necessary. Armed with this information, Ednah is improving both her farm's productivity and profits.

Not all farmers in Kenya have had the same success as Ednah. Kenya is home to nearly a third of the continent's agricultural technology start-ups, but many of Kenya's farmers have yet to benefit.

Still, new technologies have the ability to transform Kenya's agricultural sector in the same way that mobile phones have done in telecoms and banking.

Take M-pesa, Kenya's leading mobile money transfer system. With nearly 20% of Kenya's GDP flowing through it, M-pesa has profoundly changed the country's banking infrastructure. Part of this has been achieved by providing critical access to finance for those in remote areas.

Similarly, each stage of the African agriculture value chain is ripe for disruption, and this is even more important with the impacts of climate change being felt across the continent. Markets, which include labour, capital and credit, still regularly fail African farmers. Poor soil quality and more extreme and volatile weather make traditional farm planning less secure. Meanwhile, smallholder farmers are still using poor quality services which do not get delivered in time.

The newly launched "One Million Farmer Initiative", coordinated by the World Bank, aims to enrol one million Kenyan farmers onto digital platforms by 2022 and help them overcome some of these daily barriers.

The rationale behind the initiative, which is also supported by the Kenyan government, is that the upfront costs to innovators of understanding farmers' needs and reaching them can be prohibitively high. Once farmers are on the platform, they can be more accessible to agri-tech innovators, driving down future data generation costs.

Technology can also enable suppliers to aggregate farmers' demand for inputs like seeds and services like tractors, which can then be cost-effectively delivered to farmers at the farm gate. Other promising approaches include financial services, enterprise development, market access and data analytics.

The enormous potential of these technologies was made clear at the Disruptive Agricultural Technology Challenge, where Kenya's most promising agri-tech entrepreneurs were brought together. Those with a viable, sustainable and scalable business model, over at least two years, showcased their technology's potential impact on productivity. Innovators focusing on smallholders and women farmers, as well as others along the agricultural value chain, were also prioritised.

The online platform iCow, for instance, uses videos to share agricultural practices on animal and crop production which makes it easy for farmers to understand and replicate. It also connects farmers to vital players in their value chain, including input and financial service providers, veterinary experts, NGOs and more.

Then there is ACRE Africa, a registered insurance agent in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. The company uses Big Data to track the performance of crops and livestock, which lowers the risk associated with farmers to insurance providers. ACRE Africa has helped more than 1.7 million farmers access insurance against adverse weather, valued at more than US$181-million.

The digital marketplace, Tulaa, provides a one-stop solution for smallholder farmers. Farmers can use the service to buy high quality agricultural inputs on credit. Then, during the harvest season, Tulaa sends farmers tailored messages on good agricultural practices using satellite data and artificial intelligence. After harvest, Tulaa brokers the sale for these farmers, overcoming barriers to market.

Tulaa, ACRE Africa and iCow are amongst the fourteen start-ups who will be assisted with data support, mentoring and impact evaluation through the One Million Farmers Initiative which aims to scale up and reach as many as one million farmers in the next three to five years.

To achieve this goal, the initiative has the support of the central and regional governments of Kenya, who are working closely with these innovators as well as the private sector. Many financial institutions working in Kenya are also collaborating to support and nurture the platform.

With an increasing number of farmers now accessing digital services with mobile phones, these innovators will need to collaborate with one another in order to provide Kenyan farmers with a one-stop digital platform to fuel the farm economy and achieve better livelihoods.

* By Parmesh Shah, the World Bank Group.