Unlocking The Potential Of New-Age ‘Digital’ Farmers — A Mercy Corps Success Story
Since the advent of Agriculture 3.0, the global agriculture sector has experienced a slow but sure transformation to a modern, technology-driven approach to agriculture. In recent decades, the adoption of digital farming systems driven by advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics and farm automation, and the innumerous applications of IoT is prevalent for several reasons. Firstly, smart farming solutions fuel higher productivity due to increased efficiency. Secondly, precision agriculture allows for a more sustainable approach to farming, capacitating producers to be more mindful of the resources they use and to care for the environment better. Thirdly, these innovations are enabling a more inclusive agroecosystem that caters to the needs of even the most marginalised and underserved farmers. Finally, they are also creating opportunities for the active participation of youth in agriculture, many of whom believe that smallholder farming does not provide them with a lucrative means of livelihood.
Youth: The Changemakers In The New Era of Agriculture
Development programs that focus on smallholder agriculture have demonstrated that a digital inclusion strategy is integral to empowering marginalised farmers to lift themselves out of poverty. However, since older generations of farmers in developing countries have poor or little literacy skills, targeting the more tech-savvy youngsters seems to be the go-to approach to catalyse a change process.
In Africa, the exponential growth rate of internet penetration and the availability of smartphones at an affordable price has resulted in youngsters becoming more digitally literate and well-connected at a global level. The digital revolution in agriculture has undoubtedly increased engagement, productivity, and income for youth in the sector. Sieka Gatabaki, the Deputy Program Director of Mercy Corps’s AgriFin Program, says that a recent youth research case study conducted by the Program identified three core areas where youth could actively participate in agriculture.
- As primary producers using technology to increase returns on often small parcels of land and provide constant market information, pricing, and access.
- As field agents offering services to farmers such as extension support (often facilitated via a digital innovation) and various financial services such as loan, and insurance agents and inspectors.
- Directly in the value chain as aggregators, logisticians, mechanisation support, etc
“Key to most of these roles is the use of technology which often aligns to the youth’s perception of quality work being technology-driven or technology-supported,” he added.
AgriFin is a multi-partner program launched in 2012 to identify the needs of the smallholder farmers and provide an effective platform for global partners to design, test, and scale high-impact digital solutions. Thus far, the program has benefited 5.5 million smallholder farmers across Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The key areas of innovation that AgriFin focuses on are:
- Product and Service Development for Smallholders
- Last Mile Distribution Networks
- Farmer Capability Tool Development and Testing
- Technology Startup Acceleration
- Alternative Data & Credit Scoring
AgriFin’s profound experience from more than 100 engagements to date has helped it define four unique youth personas characterised by key demographic, behavioural, and attitudinal criteria. This understanding of specific needs and aspirations of young farmers has enabled the Program to collaborate with ideal partners and develop programmes tailor-made for the problem at hand.
DigiFarm: The Champion Of Strategic Partnerships To Uplift Livelihoods
One such partnership that has enabled Kenyan farmers to access a variety of agri-services with ease is with Safaricom, a leading communications provider in Kenya. Agrifin’s study of ground-level problems supported Safaricom to evaluate the needs of the farmers before building the required solution. The resultant human-centric app DigiFarm was achieved by figuring out the day-to-day lifestyle of the farmers, following their activities from morning to night, and assessing how to integrate technology into their lives to make it meet their needs.
Launched in 2017, Digifarm offers farmers a bundle of services, which include access to quality farm inputs, customised advisory services, and access to markets, in addition to affordable input credit, insurance cover for produce, and other financial services — all from just a 2G-enabled mobile phone. The recent winner of GLOMO Awards (Best Mobile Innovation for Emerging Markets), DigiFarm works together with over 1 million subscribed farmers with the support of its extension and implementation partner, Kenya Livestock Producers Association (KLPA), who help ease the transition to smart farming.
Mercy Corps AgriFin played a critical role in the design and implementation of DigiFarm, supporting the solution right from concept development through product innovation to UX testing. By offering a wholesome package of services through a single platform, not only was DigiFarm able to reduce costs and build customer loyalty, it provided the farmers with convenient, one-stop access to services they require for more productive and profitable agriculture. Further, designing the solution around the farmer’s value proposition and making it user-centric ensured that their needs are catered to in the most efficient way possible.
Young farmers who make up 15% of the users on DigiFarm find the platform highly beneficial. They either engage with the platform as farmers or take up roles that support agricultural production, such as managing agro-dealer outlets associated with DigiFarm or facilitating soil testing, crop spraying or veterinary services. To such a degree, DigiFarm widens the scope of opportunities in agriculture for those who do not want to pursue farming. Additionally, it also improves young farmers’ access to socioeconomic resources and helps them understand how best these resources can be used to boost their revenue.
DigiFarm’s robust alliance with its partners makes it possible to leverage their array of capabilities and expertise to drive higher revenue for all stakeholders. The success of digital platforms like DigiFarm also attracts more youth into agriculture, allowing the partners to scale the project across wider geographies and benefit more growers. Moreover, these platforms gather real-time data on these young farmers’ activities in the application and the decisions they make on a day-to-day basis. Such insights provide each of the partners with a clear understanding of the users’ behaviour and can hence enhance their offerings to serve the end-users even better.
Although there is immense scope for diverse interventions targeting youth in agriculture, strategic partnerships such as those made possible by the Mercy Corps AgriFin Program are spearheading a compelling change in the global agriculture landscape. Digital services are, undoubtedly, reshaping the youth’s perception of smallholder farming and creating a more favourable environment for the youth to strengthen their livelihoods. Technology enablers such as CropIn are also ensuring that the youth have better access to quality inputs, information, and services that will nourish an all-round growth, not just for individual farmers, but also for the farming community on the whole.
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