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Transforming the Structure of Agricultural Information Systems Using Mobile Phone Technology

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The Mobile Phone is the magic bullet that farmers have been looking for to reduce information search costs and marketing transaction costs. They have increased small holder farmers access to information on distant markets. Mobile phone technology, dubbed as the market on your palm, serves as the key source of information for majority of rural households. This is where 80% of population resides and are dependent on agriculture as their main source of livelihood. The sector contributes about 25% of Kenya’s GDP and is considered as an engine for growth to the rural and overall economy through its forward and backward linkages with other sectors and externalities in an economy.

Growth of the agricultural sector impacts positively on the Kenyan economy and farmers, who are the main, yet the weakest actors. Majority of farmers in the rural areas are resource poor, owning small land parcels of less than 5 acres. They are characterized with low agricultural productivity and high poverty levels.  Improving the welfare of these farmers requires their production challenges to be addressed. This can be achieved through transformation of the sector and this is key to poverty reduction and enhanced economic growth. 

Low agricultural productivity has been attributed to lack of information, a factor that has the potential to increase farm productivity by up to 6%. The main source of information for farmers in Kenya has been agricultural extension service from the State Department of Agriculture (SDA). In Kenya, following devolution, agricultural extension services have not been readily available due to insufficient budgetary allocation, high cost of extension service delivery, inability of farmers to make follow-ups on technologies delivered, and institutional rigidities where the extension agent has to deliver  information in person. To improve extension service delivery, it is imperative that the County Governments must have policies that will strike a balance between the food security objectives and the desire to improve income levels of farmers. The sector therefore requires more attention than its contribution to the national economy.

The policy targets of the Kenyan government for many years has been improving the livelihoods of small farmers which is key for enhanced social and economic development. Therefore, the government has been promoting the use of alternative sources of information through innovations. One such innovation is the use of mobile phones as a source of information in agriculture.

This platform promotes information and knowledge sharing whose important factors are for enhancing agricultural productivity. Adoption of modern technology is a key driver of transformation in the agriculture sector. Timely adoption and appropriate use of easily and widely available mobile phone technology in agricultural operations is one opportunity that may help in realizing the ‘digital opportunities’, enhancing rural productivity and hence contribute  to  reducing  urban-rural  inequalities. Using the mobile phone platform to share agricultural information epitomizes the transformation of agriculture information service delivery. This technology can be used to enhance agricultural productivity, attract youth participation by making investment in the sector highly remunerative and reduce reliance on service offered by frontline extension agents.

With improved access to agricultural information, farmers can effectively plan on how much to plant and where to invest their money. However, it is important to address issues of mobile connectivity and user friendly content. These would encourage easy learning and reduce production risks associated with information challenges. For improved agricultural production and productivity leading to improved rural livelihoods and food security. It can be used to to maximize the livelihoods of rural farmers.

There are a number of mobile friendly services offered to farmers MPesa, MFarm which tapped in to Kenyas unbanked market and provided value for money. Others are eSoko, and iCow.

With increasing penetration of mobile networks and widespread use of mobile phones, the flow of information has been enhanced in Kenya, which has a mobile phone penetration of 87% among its population. Therefore, mounting agricultural services on these expansive mobile platform is one strategy that can be used to enhance service delivery to farmers.

However, just like the IT, mobile technology is still evolving and new frontiers are emerging.  Understanding and exploiting information flow arising from these new opportunities is important for mobile phone services targeting agricultural trade and farmers.

Report by Dr Dennis Otieno a Research Fellow at Tegemeo Institute

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