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Digital platforms have an important role in the age of new emergencies in African agriculture

28 Jul 2020Digital Society

By Laura Crow, Senior Product Manager, M-Pesa

In response to COVID-19, most governments around the world have imposed restrictions on the movement of personnel and equipment, along with extended market closures, creating challenges for agriculture and supply chains. These trends are expected to exacerbate existing humanitarian challenges in Africa, such as floods, droughts, East Africa’s worst Desert Locust outbreak in 70 years, and to significantly impact food security.

African countries are now faced with the challenge of how to swiftly and effectively scale preventive approaches to reduce the immediate risk that COVID-19 poses to people’s health and, further, the short and long term negative implications to existing markets, livelihoods and food systems.

During this time of disruption, mass digital platforms have shown their ability to be agile in their adaptation and response, helping to solve complex challenges.

Digital platforms have evolved from the early-stages of connecting buyers and sellers for simple transactions (such as the  pioneering mobile money service, M-Pesa which was launched by Vodafone Group and Safaricom in 2007) into multi-sided platforms that bring together consumers, service providers and stakeholders to facilitate value exchange as part of a larger ecosystem.

Picture rights: Safaricom

One such platform is DigiFarm, Safaricom’s agriculture service in Kenya. The platform highlights the important digital links keeping the economy going in such rapidly changing times.

DigiFarm offers farmers one-stop access to a suite of products, including financial and credit services, quality farm products and customised information on farming best practices, all from the most basic phone. So far, DigiFarm has over 2.5 million farmers enlisted to the service, and its approach has won awards, notably GSMA’s best innovation for emerging markets.

Safaricom has ambitious goals and plans to reach 5 million farmers in Kenya through DigiFarm by 2023, with the potential to bring the DigiFarm model to other countries through Vodafone partners.

This mass market approach to delivering services to smallholders through a curated set of partners integrated under one platform may provide a blueprint for other digital platforms to follow. For example, Vodacom Tanzania recently launched a new digital platform for farmers, m-Kulima, incorporating lessons from the region, including DigiFarm.

A key approach to developing digital platforms is to work with best-in-class partners with detailed knowledge about farmers’ needs to help in the product design, and other organisations (for example input, financial and information providers), offering  tailored services through the platform, that farmers can pay for through their mobile phones.

Other digital platforms have also shown great potential during this time of disruption and crisis. AgriFin is taking the lead in the creation of a digitally-enabled integrated response to the twin problems of Desert Locusts and COVID-19, using WhatsApp for business and machine learning capabilities, SMS and call centres, in coordination with promotion over weekly agricultural TV shows, chat groups, newsletters and content providers. This platform, piloted and rolled out in Kenya, is a public resource open to all in the country.

Discussions are underway about how to integrate this model into Safaricom, ensuring maximum utility and spread of the service, as well as laying the foundations for future crisis response tools. In the coming months Safaricom and Mercy Corps AgriFin will continue to look at ways to collaborate to see if there are any adaptations which will help build farmers’ resilience using digital and data-led approaches to be as accurate and safe as possible. With the next planting period looming, digital crisis response solutions need to be adaptive to farmers’ needs and new challenges during this time.

The complex interplay of crisis - from COVID-19, to Desert Locusts, to the climate emergency - is creating a unique operating environment in Africa; digital platforms are well placed to offer solutions to some of these complex challenges.

To learn more about how AgriFin partners are collaborating to equip farmers with the right digital solutions to respond to these crises, watch a recording of the recent Skoll World Forum Online webinar: SCALING CLIMATE SMART AGRICULTURE: TECH, FAILS, WINS AND EMERGENCIES

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