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News Story
8 October 2020

COVID-19 accelerated digitalization of agriculture, but is this trend here to stay?

Photo: CTA ACP-EU / Flickr.

The coronavirus caused a global health crisis and pushed governments to limit the movement of people and goods, and the Eastern Africa region is no exception.

The two previous articles from this series focused on the impacts the pandemic is having on farmers and food companies in Eastern Africa and discussed the challenges experienced by these groups.

But what might be less well-known is the way restrictions have affected agricultural input and extension service providers. Inclusive Business Sweden investigated how agricultural service providers are adapting and obtained insights from KUZA Biashara Ltd, Kenya.

Providing critical services in a different context

Agricultural extension services play a key role in agricultural development by helping farmers build capacity to improve their agricultural practices. These services include learning about crop planning, pest and diseases control management, adaptation to climate change and provide access to input, mechanisation and financial services and links to markets.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, extension services mostly employed the “on the field”
approaches, such as demonstration plots, group training and farm visits, all of which implied in-person interaction. However, COVID-19-related social distancing measures made such training impossible.

Access to seeds and fertilizers got restricted as well, not to mention purchasing equipment that is manufactured outside of the region. At the same time, due to the fact that “business as usual” has become impossible, the extension service had to switch to digital.

Digital acceleration

A quick internet search shows that Eastern Africa is experiencing a rise in a number of digital tools, including online marketplaces that connect farmers with input providers or customers as well as digital platforms that provide financial and technical advisory services to smallholder farmers.

Some of them existed before the pandemic, but have now significantly expanded their user base. KUZA Biashara Ltd, a Kenyan social enterprise and certified B Corporation, is one example. They work with smallholder farmers, helping them to learn, connect and grow at scale. Sriram Bharatam, founder and Chief Mentor of KUZA, reports that one of the reasons behind the digital acceleration in agriculture could be that many young people have moved back to their villages after losing jobs in the cities. Youth are naturally attracted to digital tools and use these channels to learn about agronomy as well as for research about weather, markets and for communication.

Sriram Bharatam thinks that by prompting higher use of digital technologies, COVID-19 may have unintentionally made agriculture more attractive to younger generations. For instance, he says that before the pandemic only 13% of the farmers they work with used WhatsUp, but now 87% of them have completely migrated to digital.

COVID-19 has shown that “we are all in this together” and underscored the importance of combined efforts. Digitalization can help us connect, communicate and work together in ways we have not previously thought of.

Similarly to how farmers are coming together to purchase inputs or to deliver produce, many extension service providers are resorting to collaboration to adapt to the current circumstances. For example, SNV partnered with Agri-Wallet, Rabobank, Rabo Foundation, FtMA and Farmers to Market Alliance and created a multi-partners initiative that brings together different expertise in digital technology, finance, loan provision and technical assistance to support smallholder farmers in Kenya during the pandemic.

Here to stay?

There have been indications of digitalization of agriculture prior to COVID-19. Farmers were starting to use mobile phones to access markets and connect with customers, food companies were beginning to use digital solutions to improve traceability, and consumers showed interest in applications to buy directly from farmers. However, the pace of this change had been slow, and the digital transformation of agriculture was perceived as a thing from the future. Trading and training were mostly done in-person too.

But with COVID-19-induced curfews, lockdowns, movement restrictions and social distancing, the change happened fast. Digitization and digitalization of agriculture offer ways to reduce the negative effects of agri-food value chains and help farmers get the financial support and agricultural inputs they need to grow and sell their produce. Digital technologies also make agriculture more attractive for youth, while new collaborative arrangements have already shown productivity gains.

If this trend continues, the rapid adoption of digital solutions seen during the pandemic is likely to stick. This is heartwarming and is, perhaps, an accidental silver-lining of these uncertain times.

However, food systems require much more investment and action if we are to end hunger and achieve the SDGs. Only a modern value chain equipped with quality seeds and inputs, cooling systems, harvesting, processing and packaging equipment, clean energy and efficient distribution channels will be able to fully embrace the benefits of digitalization.