Mobile phones are transforming African agriculture
Stephen Muchiri of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation addresses the crowd at Arlington Five in Ottawa during a special Farm Radio International event, A Conversation with 20 Million Farmers.
On a good day, a farmer in eastern Africa has enough food for their family, says Stephen Muchiri. On another day, he says, that same farmer may rely on donated food.
As the CEO of Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF), an organization that represents 20 million farmers across 10 countries, Stephen speaks with authority. He made these opening remarks at a special Farm Radio International event held at Arlington Five coffee house in Ottawa on June 13.
But he went on to describe how farming in eastern Africa is changing. A key driver of this change is technology.
Mobile phones have been revolutionary for farmers
“There are more mobile phones than toothbrushes in Africa,” Stephen quipped. In fact, widespread access to mobile phones has been revolutionary for farmers.
Mobile phones enable farmers to connect with other farmers across great distances. With coordination, mobile phones can even help farmers to work together to purchase inputs and sell harvests. Stephen described an e-granary program that EAFF launched that connects farmers to sell their harvests in bulk. This app also provides a price trend analysis, giving farmers the information they need to negotiate a fair purchase price.
At FRI, we’re leveraging the widespread availability of mobile phones through initiatives such as The Listening Post, which utilizes technologies such as SMS and beep-to-vote polling to ensure that radio acts as a two-way communications tool and that farmer voices are heard by decision makers.
Technology can make agriculture more appealing to African youth
Stephen has also seen mobile phones play a role in encouraging youth to enter farming in the first place.
In recent decades, fewer young adults have been pursuing careers in agriculture. In eastern Africa, this has left farming mostly in the hands of people 50 years or older. This trend is a serious threat to food security and economic well-being of nations.
But Stephen has seen change in the attitudes of youth towards agriculture. The same young people who use their phones to learn about the world can also use them to manage their farms. New technologies make farming more appealing and more accessible. Tech-savvy youth can now use their phones to plan a farming season, apply for and receive a small loan, and market an agricultural product.
During a follow-up interview at the FRI office, Stephen enthusiastically sited many examples of young people establishing innovative businesses in the agricultural sector. In his home country of Kenya, he’s seen a woman who grow a successful business by growing animal pasture in vertical shelves. Another looked at the fact that most Kenyan coffee is exported and built a business that buys, roasts, and sells local coffee to national businesses.
While the majority of the members of his farmers federation are in their 50s and 60s, Stephen encourages youth with his own story. An initially reluctant participant in the agricultural sector, Stephen studied horticulture at university only after failing to receive a spot in either of his two preferred programs. However, he decided to apply himself in his studies and worked his way to becoming the manager of a large vegetable farm at the age of 23 (a job he left a year later to pursue a Master’s degree in agriculture).
He wants African youth to see that “the opportunities [in agriculture] are big and they’re real.”
Value chains are the future
As for the future, Stephen says that farmers need support that goes beyond the growing season. They need accessible information about every step of the value chain. (A value chain describes the process by which an agricultural products goes from start to market.) Stephen says that, in many cases, literature is available, but it hasn’t been converted into practical steps.
Farmers also need information about growing, harvesting, transforming a crop. They need to know what to do and what problems to look out for along the way.
Farmers need this information to produce a good product and to profit from it. Stephen explains that this information is crucial to planning and financing. For example, to plan an agricultural season, a farmer needs to know which inputs are needed and what they cost. On the other end, he or she needs to know the price that a finished product will fetch.
Stephen was interested to learn about FRI’s 5-year value chain project, which supports farmers with radio programs that follow the growing and marketing season.
The centrality of farmers’ voices is a hallmark of FRI programs, which is something else Stephen has seen the value of. He says: “Farmers always listen to other farmers…. If it’s another farmer, that is when their ear is to the ground.”
When asked if there is one thing he’d like to tell Canadians, he said: “Agriculture [in eastern Africa] is not the way it was 50 years ago. The world did not just move and leave us there.”
Stephen says a change is happening and it’s a positive one.