Access to markets is one of the main challenges facing smallholder farmers in Kenya. Efficient markets facilitate faster distribution of food and agricultural products from surplus areas to deficit areas. The use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet, mobile technology and devices, and data analytics in agriculture is critical for transforming the sector and make it more efficient and sustainable. In the recent past, digital agricultural platforms have been developed, providing access to financial goods, markets, and information, and thus changing the way consumers buy locally grown food, market vendors negotiate prices, and how small and medium-sized farmers distribute their produce.
Kenya offers 95 digital agriculture services, which is almost double the number in other African countries such as Nigeria. However, it is estimated that only 20% to 30% of Kenyan farmers adopt digital agricultural technologies. Digital marketing platforms such as Mkulima young, Mfarm, Farmer’s Market Kenya, Digifarm, iShamba, Vuuna, Ujuzikilimo and Taimba collectively contribute to market access by reducing information asymmetry, facilitating direct transactions, and creating more efficient and transparent agricultural value chains. They empower farmers with information, networking opportunities, and direct connections to buyers, ultimately improving their profitability and sustainability in the marketplace. However, these are not the only innovations available, and there is need to identify additional innovations and upscale them for agricultural marketing.
The Kenya Agricultural Marketing Strategy (AMS) 2023-2032 highlights on leveraging digital technologies to enhance market access for small farmers. It 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. Moreover, the AMS underscores the importance of fostering digital literacy among smallholder agricultural practitioners to enable them to effectively utilize these technologies. By advocating for a robust digital infrastructure and capacity building initiatives, the strategy aims to empower farmers, reduce traditional market barriers, and create more direct connections between small farmers and markets. Ultimately, the adoption of digital technologies is seen as a transformative force, promoting inclusivity, efficiency, and sustainability in the Kenyan agricultural sector.
Constraint to Adopting Digital Technologies
Inadequate Internet penetration in rural areas hinders farmers from receiving real time market information, thus affecting their ability to make informed decisions, leading to potential losses and inefficiencies in the agricultural produce market. As of 2023, Internet penetration in Kenya was 32.7 per cent, with 17.86 million users and 63.94 million active cellular mobile connections. Despite major investments to improve rural connectivity by installing Internet/WIFI in rural markets, Internet access remains prohibitively expensive for a large portion of the population. In addition, many rural areas have not profited from Kenya’s high-capacity bandwidth, owing to market inequities and limitations in last-mile connectivity, which is costly and necessitates basic facilities such as electricity and roads, which are frequently under-developed. Addressing this policy gap requires focused efforts in infrastructural development, affordability, and digital literacy to bridge the urban-rural digital gap. Ensuring robust policies for widespread and affordable Internet access is crucial to empower smallholder farmers, enabling them to harness the benefits of digital platforms for enhanced participation in the agricultural produce market.
Inconsistent and unreliable power supply in most rural areas limits the efficient use of digital technologies as it hinders farmers’ engagement with online markets, real-time information and data collection and the operation of digital tools and equipment. 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.
Limited affordability and access to smartphones and computers hinders 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. Policy makers 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.
Most smallholder farmers lack the digital literacy skills required to properly use digital tools and platforms. 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. In addition, 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.
A gap in communication between users’ involvement in app development and app developers limits the usage of these apps. The bulk of mobile applications fail to recognize that farmers require direct market links in addition to price information. They are unable to capitalize on these opportunities despite having price information. Twiga Foods, for instance, depicts a working collaborative model as it has a complete value chain relationship that connects farmers to consumers. Other apps come with subscription fees, which farmers maybe not be able to afford. Developers need to consider and understand the social and economic context in which the apps will be utilized to make them relevant and user-friendly.
To address the key policy issues in enhancing market access through digital technologies among smallholder farmers in Kenya, the following interventions are key:
- Prioritization of investments in expanding reliable Internet connectivity and electricity supply in rural areas is key to enhancing digital access.
- 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 need for affordable feature phone initiatives that send comprehensive, timely information to farmers, eliminating the need for Internet connectivity and smartphones.
- There is need for enhanced collaboration between digital application developers and farmers to meet user needs such as minimal to zero cost of usage.
Authors: Kennedy Musyoka, Research Assistant, Productive Sector Department
Esther Omosa, Research Assistant, Productive Sector Department