A digital approach to overcoming COVID-19 challenges in the field
The Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) is a ten-year, CA$35 million partnership (AUD$37 million) between IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). CultiAF funds applied research aimed at improving food security, resilience, and gender equality across Eastern and Southern Africa.
With face to face interactions restricted or no longer possible as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) research teams in Kenya and Mozambique are finding new ways to use digital technologies to continue working with their beneficiaries. This includes leveraging innovative digital solutions, such as bundled internet packages to support the mentorship of young agricultural entrepreneurs (agripreneurs) and mobile-phone based crop insurance and farmer training apps to maintain direct contact with local communities.
“Smart” farmer solutions
“How do you leverage existing digital technologies to improve the productivity and resilience of smallholder farmers? This is exactly what our project has been doing,” says Amos Tabalia, principal investigator for CultiAF’s Climate-Smart Crop Insurance project. The project’s “SeeitGrow” picture-based insurance application, available via Google Android devices, offers crop-specific advisory services that are currently being accessed by 27,400 farmers in Kenya. The app also provides insurance cover for green grams (mung beans), maize, and sorghum crops.
To maintain contact with farming communities during the pandemic, the project is harnessing the features of the SeeitGrow tool to provide remote guidance on crop insurance, such as how to take quality crop photos that can be used to assess damage. Further, to help the farmers overcome challenges of reduced access to inputs and markets under COVID-19 restrictions, the project is leveraging its partnerships with input providers and fresh produce buyers to link rural farmers with resources and income opportunities for continued production.
Virtual agripreneur advice
CultiAF’s Metro Agrifood Living Lab Model, which provides young agripreneurs (aged 18–35 years) with access to business training, finance, and mentorship, is also working to address agribusiness challenges in Kenya. The objective is to enable Kenyan youths to develop and maintain resilient, job-creating enterprises. However, in light of COVID-19 restrictions, the scheduled mentorship meetings with experienced business owners can no longer take place.
The project has adopted a virtual mentoring system and negotiated with Safaricom PLC and Telkom Kenya to offer internet bundles at a subsidized cost. Using this affordable service, the mentors and mentees have maintained regular interaction and participate in the project’s weekly webinar series, which brings agripreneurs together to learn from each other and to exchange business coping strategies. “The virtual mentorship sessions have helped me to develop my business plan so I can proactively resume business operations despite the cessation of movement,” says Sarah Ochieng, a young silkworm farmer. Using phone and video calls, in addition to WhatsApp and SMS messages, Ochieng has also been able to discuss, for example, the importance of providing COVID-19 safety measures for her employees.
Online markets in Mozambique
Smallholder farmers in Mozambique also face mobility related challenges under COVID-19 restrictions. The inability to meet and trade with buyers at their farms, for example, is leading to reduced incomes, which in turn limits the capacity of farmers to purchase essential agricultural inputs to enhance productivity.
CultiAF’s farmer-led smallholder irrigation in Mozambique (FASIMO) project has been working with three irrigation schemes in Gaza and Manica provinces since April 2019 to identify the challenges facing these farmers (such as water scarcity) and to test technological approaches (such as using soil nutrient and water monitoring tools) to enhance productivity. However, the team has pivoted its research priorities to help mitigate the immediate and more urgent farmer issues related to income and accessing inputs.
The project devised several strategies, including piloting a mobile phone-based platform called IRIPO that can link farmers to buyers and input providers online. IRIPO is a two-way communication system that uses SMS and video/audio web applications to facilitate communication between end users (i.e. farmers, research institutions, private sector actors, input suppliers, and development agencies). FASIMO aims to reach approximately 500 farmers, who will receive weekly crop-specific SMS messages via the platform to enhance their access to market information and technical production advice to inform their farming decisions.