COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges across the globe, spurring dramatic changes across all economic systems.
With over 2.4 million infections worldwide and over to 165,000 deaths as of April 20, 2020, businesses and industries across the world are constantly re-inventing themselves to cope with the challenges of this disease.
While the pandemic is still evolving, making it difficult to ascertain the level of expected impact, the effect to food systems and related incomes for populations that work in the agricultural sector is predicted to be huge.
According to the World Bank’s 19th Kenya Economic Update, agriculture is still a major driver of growth for the Kenyan economy and is the dominant source of employment for most citizens.
Further, the Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy identifies agriculture as a key sector in achieving the envisaged annual economic growth rate of 10 per cent. This shall be done through the transformation of smallholder agriculture from subsistence to an innovative, commercially-orientated and modern agricultural sector.
However, the impacts of coronavirus and the resulting movement restrictions imposed by the government are bound to cause disruptions in food production during and post COVID-19 by these smallholder farmers and supply chains.
Over 80 per cent of food consumed in Kenya is produced by rural populations who often participate as farm owners (producers) or farm employees. Disruptions in their livelihoods would adversely affect the poor and other marginalised groups with less purchasing power and resources to adapt to this unpredictable global crisis.
While the government continues to adjust its imposed measures in response to emerging health challenges, the supply and access to important farm inputs and extension services to smallholder farmers, and assurance of markets for their produce is key.
To enhance productivity at the farm level during this period, access to extension services remains critical and this has largely remained elusive even in normal times.
In the historical absence of physical extension services, Agri-preneurs and agri-innovators have sought to fill this gap by developing various technologies and artificial intelligence. These seek to enhance farmers’ access to extension services and other agricultural information.
Arifu, WeFarm, Twiga Foods and Digifarm platforms are good examples of technological models in Kenya that could be expanded to reach multiple numbers of smallholders with appropriate farming information.
Apart from extension services, technology can also be further embraced in the agricultural sector to link farmers to markets, and buyers to suppliers. Urban areas such as Nairobi and Mombasa are leading in the uptake of delivery services for farm produce to their doorsteps. Expected growth in the number and quantity of business for such services is evident.
Consequently, the expanded use of mobile payment technologies for transactions is set to increase in the agricultural sector, as witnessed in other areas of the economy with the government’s encouragement on the use of mobile payment for goods and services.
According to a recent Brookings Institution report, artificial intelligence is projected to add USD 15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. It is reported there are nearly 400 digital agricultural technologies being used in Africa, with almost a quarter of these based in Kenya.
Digital tools are helping many businesses to make better decisions, and farmers are no exception.
Technology and new digital tools can help farmers use precise amounts of inputs, identify distress in plants, as well as keep better control of their farm operations.
With the emergence of COVID-19, we shall be left with no choice but to rally our food production systems towards mass adoption of technology in delivering extension support.
The situation created by coronavirus creates an opportunity for the private sector, governments and development partners to accelerate the growth and adoption of technology in improving food security.
I urge all stakeholders involved in policy-formulation, innovation and farmer engagement to consider broadening financial and technical support to agri-innovators to develop appropriate tech for smallholder farmers, increasing farmers’ awareness of and use of agri-tech for agricultural production, while increasing investment and research in agriculture and agri-tech.
Kenya Markets Trust in its efforts to stimulate and sustain agricultural growth and productivity is engaging a range of stakeholders to explore virtual extension delivery strategies.
As we cope with one of our greatest generational unprecedented crisis, we have an opportunity to redefine how agriculture is supposed to be delivered in the 21st century. Adoption of agri-tech has the potential to revolutionise Kenya’s food production systems for posterity, and ensure adequate food production during and post COVID-19.
Article by: Patrick Obath – Board Chair, Kenya Markets Trust