The COVID 19 pandemic has made more clear than ever the need for and role of digital technologies to strengthen and scale innovations to assist smallholders farmers and other value chain actors. At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, movement restrictions and the cycles of lockdowns in different countries threatened to slow down progress among farmers and other partners. Into this void, new digital technologies and tools promoted by the International Potato Center (CIP) and its partners are transforming agricultural extension and markets for sweetpotato and potato agri-food systems by ensuring the timely provision of technical information to farmers, extension staff, markets and vulnerable communities.
In Kenya, CIP partnered with the private company Arifu to digitize existing good agricultural practices (GAPs) for sweetpotato, enabling farmers to access this information through an interactive platform. Collaborating since 2020 under the FCDO-funded “Development and Delivery of Biofortified Crops at Scale” (DDBIO) project, CIP and Arifu have connected 15,000 farmers with free digital trainings available in two languages (English and Kiswahili).
Given that smartphone use is still low among smallholder farmers, CIP is using SMS technology over basic cell phones to distribute this information, while Arifu promotes data on COVID 19 related to health, finances, education and stress management. The initial success of this project has encouraged GIZ to offer its support to help CIP and Arifu reach another 30,000 sweetpotato farmers in the coming year.
“I really liked the content. It was educative. I even started farming orange-fleshed sweetpotato and I can tell when they are infected with pests or diseases. The content helped me know how to take care of sweetpotatoes.” – Loise Nzilani Kiragu (farmer, Kwale County, Kenya)
CIP is also partnering with the National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) to upgrade an existing digital platform – Viazi Soko – that provides advisory and extension service outreach for potato farmers. Viazi Soko was launched in 2017 to create a virtual hub for farmers to access quality planting materials, markets and other advisory services, such as weather forecasts. The upgrade will allow farmers to access the platform on three protocols (USSD, web-based, and Android). Today, the platform has 100,000 registered users, 80% of whom are potato farmers in Kenya..
Also with the support of DDBIO, CIP is working in Bangladesh to reach more than 40,000 orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) farmers using WhatsApp and SMS technology. Through a partnership with private sector mPower, these digital tools are helping CIP create awareness about OFSP production and nutrition throughout the country while helping to link rural OFSP farmers to urban, regional, and global markets through a mobile app Sweet Nutrition. The app was launched in January 2021 and has been downloaded by more than 1,200 farmers. The team hopes to surpass 10,000 users within the first year by promoting the app through social media channels.
In Uganda, 54 vine multipliers have been registered on two apps – ODK and VIAZI – that collect data on the location and activities of these farmers to help connect them with markets for their planting materials. In addition, a total of 350 health assistants, agriculture officers and headteachers have been trained to collect beneficiary and monitoring data using smart phones. This work will significantly reduce the cost of data collection and improve the quality of data to ensure the availability of timely technical information on GAPs, and market information for vines.
To encourage consumption of OFSP in urban areas, SMS technology has been extended to 100 OFSP root traders in the cities who receive monthly messages encouraging them to sell and promote OFSP consumption. WhatsApp platforms have been set up in each of the 14 Ugandan districts where CIP works. These groups share among themselves information OFSP GAPs, markets, and ideas for value addition.
As these examples illustrate, digital technologies have a critical role to play in opening new possibilities for smallholder farmers and in helping to strengthen their resilience in the face of crises such as COVID 19. Altogether, supporting these farmers with smartphone apps and other virtual platforms will translate to improved incomes and nutrition for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
By Joyce Maru, Debashish Chanda, Luka Wanjohi, Norman Kwikiriza and Srinivasulu Rajendran