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Research highlights opportunities for digitizing agriculture in Kenya


Kenya’s agricultural output could be multiplied by leveraging digital technologies to support smallholder farmers improve productivity and enhance access to supply chains and value addition, a new study commissioned by Microsoft has concluded.

Titled, Mapping Policies and Structures for Kenya’s Preparedness for Digital Agriculture, the research, conducted by Strathmore University, aimed to improve the understanding and support the development of a regulatory and policy environment that can enable development of smart farming in Kenya and, by extension, Africa. The White Paper was launched on the side-lines of a national dialogue themed: Agriculture Data and Digitization Transformation: Considerations in Policy and Implementation Frameworks organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries as part of preparations for the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Digitisation of Agriculture

Digitisation of agriculture implies the application of digital technologies, innovations, and data to transform agri-business processes, models, and practices across the full spectrum of agricultural value chains. Data-driven farming thus entails enhancing the decision-making process of crop production by availing timely and robust data to provide insight in what, where and when to plant.

“The paper addresses two regulatory and policy-based questions. First is ‘what are the critical regulatory and policy frameworks that can drive digitisation and agricultural transformation in Kenya?’ Second is ‘what are the best policies that can enable Big Data and AI to drive agricultural transformation as envisioned by the government, thus enabling Kenya utilise its limited agricultural resources more efficiently, become food-secure and build prosperous agribusiness sectors?” said Kendi Nderitu, Microsoft Country Director.

Largest contributor to GDP

The importance of agriculture to Kenya is underlined by the fact that it is both the largest contributor to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the main source of livelihood for most households. Agriculture contributes 27 percent of the GDP and provides employment – both formally and informally – to 40 percent of Kenyans, including nearly 70 percent of the rural population. In addition, the sector accounts for 65 percent of Kenya’s export earnings.

With so many Kenyans involved in agriculture, (there are an estimated 4.5 million small scale farmers in Kenya) growth in the sector has considerable potential to raise living standards, particularly in rural agricultural areas. The paper has therefore identified three opportunities for agricultural transformation in Kenya through digitization. The first opportunity exists more broadly in agricultural production, supply chains improvements and value addition. It exists more specifically in the ability to improve efficiency and productivity amongst smallholder farmers.

“Agriculture is the biggest contributor to Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), export revenues and household income. However, millions of smallholder farmers dominate it. The practices of these farmers are primarily manual and labour-intensive. They are also over-reliant on outdated rain fed methods. Digitizing the sector will change this,” explained Kendi.

Second, the opportunity for agricultural transformation in Kenya through digitisation can be found in the high level of Internet connectivity throughout the country. As at the end of 2019, there were 39.7 million active data subscriptions, 22.1 million of which were broadband (Communications Authority of Kenya 2019). Despite this, and compared to its neighbours, Kenya currently has the lowest share of Agri-exports per capita – at 16 percent. This compares with 27 percent in Tanzania and 34 percent in Uganda.

“There is a significant opportunity for Kenya to boost these ratios, both for small-scale and large-scale producers in crops (e.g. processing imported wheat into pasta). There is also a significant opportunity for Kenya to boost livestock (e.g. dried beef). There also exists a variety of opportunities for Kenya in the fisheries value chain including fish filleting, canning, smoking and other by-products,” the paper reads in part.

The third opportunity lies in the relatively friendly regulatory and policy environment that has enabled innovations with numerous digital innovations and start-up companies reinforcing this opportunity. Across Africa, smallholder farmers are the main users and main investors into the agritech space. The most ambitious current growth trends suggest that 100 million smallholder farmers in Africa could be registered for digital services by 2021 and as many as 200 million smallholders will sign on by 2030.

Quick adoption of technology

“Kenyans – including those in rural areas – are quick to adopt and use technology. The combination of a digitally agile population, extensive connectivity and internet penetration, and a friendly policy and regulatory environment have attracted local and international investments, start-up capital and big tech companies,” Prof. Izael Da Silva, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation, Strathmore University said.

As part of the recommendations, there is need to develop robust policy and regulatory frameworks to support the growth of the digital economy and of the agriculture sector. Three key policy areas which are receiving increased attention are digital literacy, data costs and data privacy. The research paper has identified the Kenya Open Portal (KOD) as the best platform for open access agriculture, digitisation, and smart farming in the country.

However, for this platform to be effective, there is need to establish critical protocols and structures for data collection. Additionally, all data collectors ought to be able to plug into KOD. This recommendation, if implemented, will not only make data publicly accessible, it will also ensure consistency in methodologies for data collection, and enhance the integrity of the data collected.

“There is a need to involve county governments, possibly through the Council of Governors Committee for Agriculture, as key stakeholders in collecting and inputting data into the platform. The Council of Governors is a legal public entity established by statute. This gives it the ability to input data in the open access data portal,” reads the paper in part.