Africa’s farmers bet on digital apps to up yield

Until a year ago, it would take Pamela Auma a whole month to prepare the land on her farm in western Kenya for planting ahead of the rainy season.

With hoe in hand, the mother-of-seven spent her days digging up the one-acre (0.4-hectare) plot – roughly the size of a football field – and praying she would finish in time to sow her maize and beans crops before the rains arrived.

These days, the same job takes her less than two hours, with the help of a tractor she hired through Hello Tractor, a Kenya-based smartphone app that connects small-scale farmers with tractor owners.

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“The tractor is much better than doing it by hand. It gives a quality job and works very fast,” said Auma, 52, by phone from her farm near the city of Kisumu.

“Before it was hard to find a tractor to hire and it was very costly. Now, the booking agent can quickly find a tractor owner near me by using his phone.”

Across Africa, a growing number of smallholder farmers are tapping into digital technologies to access information, services, and products to improve efficiency, boost crop yields and increase incomes.

From Nigeria to Ghana to Kenya, a slew of innovations in agricultural technology – or agri-tech – have emerged over the last decade to serve small farmers, who have long been neglected yet are crucial to the continent’s food security.

These range from SMS weather alerts and mobile apps offering credit, seeds, and machinery to more advanced solutions such as precision farming, which uses satellite, drone imagery, and soil sensors to provide real-time data on crop health.

Aloysius Uche Ordu, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, said this digitalisation of farming has the potential to transform the sector. “Africa is the world’s breadbasket – or should be. It has vast arable land, grows a wide variety of crops, and has vast irrigation potential with seven major rivers,” said Ordu.

“Yet, Africa imported $43 billion worth of food items in 2019. Digital technologies … are eliminating the traditional inefficiencies of smallholder food production and helping to close the yield gap.”

Hello Tractor, the app Auma uses to help with her farm work, operates in 13 countries including Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania, and is often described as an “Uber for tractors”.

The app lets tractor owners rent their machines to smallholders in their area and allows farmers to pool together to rent a vehicle at affordable rates.

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