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Kenyan farmers overcome pandemic restrictions through use of digital tools

By Joseph Kuria

Kenyan farmers and a MEDA partner firm they supply are embracing digital tools to minimize face-to-face business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kenya’s first COVID-19 case was reported March 13. By March 25, the Kenyan government had an- nounced a nation-wide dusk to dawn curfew and stopped travel to counties that were recording new cases.

One such county was Kilifi — home of Equator Kenya Limited. Kilifi is located north and northeast of Mombasa, Kenya’s second- largest city.

Equator Kenya is a lead firm partner with MEDA’s M-SAWA project. (M-SAWA is short for Maendeleo Sawa — Swahili for equitable prosperity through private sector development).

Farmers spread out African birdFarmers spread out African bird's eye chilis.M-SAWA is a seven-year, $29.2 million project supported by Global Affairs Canada, other institutional partners, and contributions from individual MEDA supporters.

Equator is an agribusiness company that exports African Bird’s Eye (ABE) chilis supplied by over 7,000 farmer producers in Kilifi, Tana River, Lamu and Kwale counties. MEDA provides financial incentives to Equator so it will provide technical assistance and support to its farmer suppliers.

All of the areas where Equator’s suppliers live and work have been affected by COVID-19. “COVID-19 hit us really hard at a time when we would be mobilizing farmers for the new planting season, registering new farmers, distributing seed, signing contracts and following up with production advice,” said Almut Van Casteren, Equator Kenya’s CEO.

“This seemed impossible for us during this period as we did not want to put our staff or the farmers at risk, especially being at the coast which is considered to be, next to Nairobi, one of the virus epicentres.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Equator started using eProd, a Kenyan-produced digital management solution for agri- business, to make transactions with farmers more accurate and efficient.

eProd was developed by a Kenyan chili consolidator. Equator was frustrated with the lack of software to deal with thousands of farmer suppliers and the high demands of the export market, the company’s website says.

Kenyan farmersThe COVID-19 pandemic has forced Kenyan farmers to rely more on digital tools.Use of eProd has deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This tool has allowed Equator to move away from keeping hard copies of produce collection receipts. Staff now digitally input the amount of chilis produced by farmers.

That data can easily be integrated with the system for payments to farmers through individual M-Pesa (a mobile, phone-based money transfer service) accounts or bank accounts.

Previously, Equator staff met farmers to complete produce collections and make payments, provide trainings at demo farms and at individual farms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Equator Kenya has relied more on technology to support its supply chain and keep staff and farmers safe.

Charo M Charo, a chili farmer for Equator, is happy to receive his payment and advice as usual, even when physical visits are not possible.

Bendera Chembe Katsui, a farmer group leader, is receiving feedback from farmers whenever they receive payment, which makes his work easier.

Before Equator deposited money directly, Bendera would individually call each farmer to hand over their payment in cash. He is pleased that it now takes only a short time to pay all 170 members in his farmer group.

Farmers can deliver their produce to the collection centre individually, not in large groups, with the group leader inspecting and confirming receipt. They can also access their money remotely without having to travel to collection centres together.

Such group travel would in- crease the risk of exposure and the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.

Equator staffEquator staff show how digital tools connect them to farmers.Equator has also shifted the way it mobilizes farmers by using the SMS text messaging service.

The firm uses texts to tell farmers where to get inputs (resources used in farm production, such as chemicals, equipment and seeds) they need in a central location.

“Equator issues seeds to farmer group leaders and key stakeholders and farmers can then collect these seeds in smaller groups to begin production,” said Van Casteren, Equator’s CEO.

“We then share weekly SMS messages with the farmers, providing them with production advice and informing them what to do at what time. The farmers are very positive about this and the majority of them are following our instructions. This revised process has yielded eight metric tons of chili produce so far.”

As COVID-19 has slowed Kenya’s economy, Equator believes that by increasingly embracing technology, businesses have an excellent way to work more efficiently.

Joseph Kuria is an environment officer with MEDA’s M-SAWA project.