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COVID-19 speeds up digitalization of African agricultural sector

When it became harder in Kenya for plant and animal health specialists to meet physically with farmers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides embraced digital agriculture services. And when farmers found it difficult to buy agri-products like seeds and fertilizer, they turned to online platforms. 

Digital solutions including websites, social media platforms and specific apps are accelerating the digitalization of the east African nation’s agriculture sector as it steadily sheds traditional operations.

In Kenya, as in many other African nations, digital solutions have been accelerated by the outbreak of COVID-19. Joseph Macharia, a social entrepreneur at Mkulima Young, a popular online marketplace, said, “People are now buying and selling online out of the need to do so.” He noted that in both Kenya and across Africa, the number of farmers, agro-dealers, trainers and buyers who use the platform has grown four-fold in the last two months.

“Online marketplaces have become a hit with all big and small actors in the agricultural value chain who want their products or services known since traditional markets currently remain stifled,” he said, adding that the disease has contributed immensely to the digital transformation of the agricultural value chain in Africa by enhancing access to markets and information.

Beatrice Macharia of Growth Point, an agro-consultancy based in Kajiado, south of Kenya’s capital, said driven by the tough circumstances caused by COVID-19, farmers in the east African nation and other parts of Africa are embracing digital solutions.

“Initially, most farmers did not fully adopt digital practices because they could still travel to places and get physical interactions if need be. But right now, with the curfews, lockdowns and need to maintain social distancing, they are using videos, photos and various apps to find solutions to problems,” she said. “The digital future that many were talking about is here and has come faster.”

For the last two months, she has barely met farmers physically but has handled hundreds of queries and received consultancy fees via mobile money, Macharia said.

John Karithi, a tomato farmer in Kenya, observed the trend. When his tomatoes turned brown and full of water inside, he used an online agro-consultancy service to ask experts what happened to the produce. Days later, he received information on what the problem was and how to solve it. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agricultural transformation in Africa is being boosted by the widespread use of mobile phones and low internet costs. Internet penetration in Africa stands at 39 percent of the population, which translates to 527 million people in the continent, according to the World Bank.

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