– When 33-year-old Kimani Mwaniki, an Irish potato farmer in Elburgon, Nakuru County in Kenya’s Rift Valley, heard about a farmer’s virtual school, he didn’t hesitate to enrol. He was keen to learn how the programme will enable him to get higher crop yields for his market in the capital city Nairobi and elsewhere.
For years, the young farmer had been relying on the occasional visit of an agricultural extension officer for information about best practices on his five-acre land, but not anymore.
Now, armed with a smartphone, Mwaniki can connect with experts and farmers like him across the county for information about the right seeds, when to plant them and how to tend to his crops. It also tells him about the right machinery, where to find it and how to use it.
He says through the virtual school, he has been able to find the right machinery to prepare his land at a low cost.
The virtual school programme is supported by Nakuru Agri Call, an intervention of the County Government of Nakuru. It seeks to empower some 3,000 smallholder farmers in the area with information about competitive farming practices, including mechanisation, appropriate land preparation, seed sourcing, crop care and post-harvest management.
Just by logging in to Facebook and Twitter on the Nakuru Agri Call page, farmers get tips about soil analysis, collecting soil samples for analysis, and sending their samples for analysis. Users can also find farming tips on the school’s WhatsApp page.
The program’s focus is on mechanisation. Officials say it is set to spur smallholder farmers like Kimani to engage in agribusiness and improve their livelihoods while shoring up rural economies dependent on agriculture.
In the effort to reduce the usually high cost of production, every planting season, Irish potato farmers can use the platform to request government-owned equipment for preparing their land at a nominal fee.
Kimani is among the farmers who have requested a tractor and a chisel plough through the virtual school to prepare his land to grow Irish potatoes.
He says with the help of the school, he has learnt that the plough is better than the traditional disc plough that he and other farmers in his neighbourhood have been using for many years.
The chisel plough, he says, makes the recommended raised seedbeds without damaging the soil structure like the conventional hoe and the disc plough, which turn the fragile soil in a manner that leads to rapid moisture loss and erosion during heavy rains leading to reduced productivity of the soil.
He says a chisel plough is an efficient tool for eliminating weeds, thus helpful to farmers looking to minimise labour and time on crop production from planting to maturity.
Mwaniki says with just Kenya Shillings (Ksh.2, 800), around USD 28, a farmer can request a tractor and the plough to prepare an acre compared to the Ksh 5,000 (around USD 50) used to hire a disc plough and a tractor for an acre. He hopes to increase his yield from the current 50 to 60 bags an acre.
He commends the Nakuru County government’s Agriculture Mechanization Service (AMS) for easing the burden on farmers, saying with reduced costs of production, smallholder farmers can expand their margins of profit, create wealth and jobs.
The program has also enabled smallholder farmer’s access hay, wheat harvesting equipment and maise shelling machines to minimise post-harvest losses, which farmers say eat into their returns.
The Agricultural Mechanization Service Manager, Stephen Waithaka, says the scheme encourages the adoption of technology and mechanised farming among smallholder farmers to improve production and quality of their produce.
He says besides providing mechanisation services to smallholder farmers, the program aims to train farmers on the right choices of agricultural equipment and how to use them for better yield.
Waithaka says the County Government has bought equipment valued at KShs 25 million (USD 250 000) for distribution to small-scale farmer groups in the first phase of the Agriculture Mechanization Services project.
At a time when concerns about soil conservation are mounting, Waithaka is advising farmers to use the service for appropriate ploughing practices that protect the integrity of their soil.
He observes that with increased mechanisation, more youth are anticipated to practice agriculture and create jobs while ensuring the country’s food and nutrition security agenda.
However, he says the equipment available is not adequate with the rising uptake of machinery among farmers. He says more equipment will enable the service to expand its coverage and enable more smallholder farmers to improve their yield and livelihoods by mechanisation.
Mwaniki, like other smallholder farmers, is hoping to leverage the programme for better livelihoods. He hopes that the programme, through public-private partnerships, will expand the internet coverage in agriculturally productive areas to enable more farmers to tap into it.
The role of digitisation in enhancing mechanisation is earning accolades from various stakeholders in Kenya’s agriculture sector. According to Harriet Tergat, Digitization and Communications Lead, Farm to Market Alliance in Kenya (FtMA-Kenya), an alliance of Kenyan agri-focused organisations that supports mechanisation through digitisation, the technology is transforming agriculture. She says it has brought efficiency, decreased production and operations costs, optimisation, and transparency.
“The technology can be replicated elsewhere in Africa in boosting the agricultural sector, given the continent’s very young population, fast spread of ICTs due to improved infrastructure such as high ownership smartphones and internet connectivity. Digitisation is an enabler, not an end of its own,” she says.
Harriet adds that through digitisation, transformation in the agricultural sector has brought about increased access to mechanisation services, which has brought about an increase in productivity and a decrease in production costs.
Harriet explains that the Farm to Market Alliance works with partners using a mobile phone application to connect tractor owners to smallholder farmers in need of tractor services. “Hello Tractor is like the Uber for tractors. Through this partnership, necessary mechanisation services have been availed to 11,327 smallholder farmers and 3,800 acres serviced,” she observes.
In addition to the benefits digitisation brings to smallholder farmers, notes Harriet, it also opens up new opportunities for self-employment for the youth who work as Hello Tractor agents and earn commissions for every transaction they facilitate through the application.
Indeed, a study by Food Sustainability Index, global research on nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and food waste, developed by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) and the Economist Intelligence Unit, indicates that digitisation is a boon to agriculture in Africa. According to the study, emerging digital tools contributes to efficiency and sustainability of better farm yields.
Dubbed ‘Fixing Food 2018: Best Practices towards the Sustainable Development Goals, the study analysed social, economic and environmental aspects of food sustainability. It looked at the nexus between the key challenges like access to food, healthy and sustainable diets, and responsible food production and distribution.
The study collected data from 67 countries worldwide to highlight best practices and areas for improvement concerning food and the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Rwanda ranks high in the use of sustainable practices like agricultural water because it utilises renewable sources.
Other than Rwanda and Kenya, the report states technology is contributing to sustainable agriculture in countries like Mozambique and Tanzania, for instance, via the Connected Farmer Alliance—a TechnoServe which is using mobile technology to connect farmers to multinational agribusinesses and facilitate payments, thus improving productivity, incomes, and resilience of small-scale farmers.
Still, in the case of Kenya, the level of uptake is set to grow fast. In February this year, at the launch of the five mechanisation hubs in Nakuru County, the County Executive Committee Member for Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries, Immaculate Maina, said through the program the County Government had supported five registered farmer groups to the tune of Kshs 20 million (USD 200 000).
For Mwaniki, planting season was often a headache. He was often caught alongside other farmers in a mad rush for equipment as they prepared their land for sowing, but this is no longer the case.
Demand for harrows, planters and other farm machinery was high, meaning that farmers had to wait longer, slowing down planting in time for the rains.
“When every person wanted to have their farm planted, it became hectic since we had to wait for days to get access to a plough and other farm machinery. The costs of hiring the machinery were also prohibitive,” he says.
With the future of farming resting with the emerging small-scale and middle-class farmers, he says there is an urgent need to empower this group to ensure food security.
Mwaniki indicates that since he enrolled in the AMS program last year, his potato yields per acre had increased by over 50 percent. In contrast, costs of tilling and weeding through the use of modern machinery had dropped significantly.
“The equipment makes it possible for me to undertake more than one activity in the farm, thus saving the long-term costs and improving productivity,” he observes.