The Digital Life of Kenya’s smallholder farmers – who’s using what phones to access information and loans
30 November 2018
Once upon time, Africa’s mobile users did only two things: they made voice calls or they sent SMS messages. Nowadays a large number of them have transitioned to something that might be called the digital life. Even those with the simplest patterns of digital behavior will WhatsApp their family and friends, read media items and make posts on their Facebook page. Understanding these emerging patterns of digital behavior is important for the development of a more digitally focused telecoms industry. Russell Southwood looks at smallholder farmers in Kenya, a key group with wider implications for many countries.
Smallholder farmers make up large parts of the population in all Sub-Saharan African countries. No-one is really sure how many smallholder farmers there are in Kenya. When I asked I was given figures that varied between 4-9 million. One of the problems is that almost anyone can be a farmer and many cultivate small plots of land part-time, both in the city but more often in the rural areas.
However, the reality is that a much smaller number of farmers – probably around 0.5 million people – produce nearly all of Kenya’s food. Food in Kenya is expensive to produce and get to market and makes up a disproportionately high percentage of people’s household budgets.
Many of these smallholder farmers aging (65+) and have limited literacy, particularly in English. There is a constant public discussion in the local media about whether the young will take their place. So the question of how farmers might increase both their productivity and profitability is of fundamental importance.
Various efforts have been made by both the Government and the development sector to address this question over several decades but the results are at best mixed. For a couple of decades at least, mobile and online advice and market information services have been seen as one way of addressing the productivity issue. Over that period, the use mobile phone based market-price and advice services has increased but the impact of that information has yet to be decisive in terms of productivity and profitability.
This year market research company GeoPoll carried out a survey that allows us to look at how farmers in Kenya use digital access to get information. The sample was of over 900 farmers who were recruited through listening to local edutainment programme Shamba Shape Up about improving smallholder farming practices.
The sample was almost evenly split between three different age groups: 15-24 (32%); 25-34 (34%); and 35+ (33%). The sample is somewhat younger than the average smallholder farmer but the younger skew allows us to see how things might be changing as younger farmers start entering the labor market. 41% cultivated crops; 11% looked after livestock; and 48% did both.
85% had phones, of which 38% had Android phones and 47% basic phones (voice and SMS only). Ownership of smartphones amongst the sample was very low. Nevertheless one local agricultural NGO I spoke to had carried out research that would seem to imply that overall there might be 100,000 farmers who owned a smartphone.
46% used their phones to access mobile lending services and only 15% used their phones to access farming apps and websites. On the face of it, borrowing money seems more popular than seeking advice on how to make more money.
Women smallholder farmers were more likely to own a basic rather than an Android phone: 34% of women versus 43% of men owned Android phones against 36% of women owning a basic phone versus 29% of men in the sample.
In terms of how these farmers got their information, it was through the following channels (in descending order): radio; other farmers; TV; social media; agricultural officers; and mobile apps. Across all age ranges, digital channels do less well than traditional media.
However, for those above 35 – the core age range of existing farmers – the ordering of the use of channels was as follows: radio; other farmers; and agricultural officers. In other words, they are significantly less comfortable with the new digital channels than their younger counterparts. But also this pattern is in a country that has some of the most well-used agricultural advice and market information platforms anywhere on the continent.
But amongst all age groups mobile apps are the least popular channel to get information. Two explanations might be offered. Firstly, literacy – both for reading and tech use - may be low. Secondly, the cost of data to access online or app-based services may simply be too high for the income level of potential users.
As might be expected however, social media is much more popular amongst 15-24 year olds. But that doesn’t quite account for the fact that for example, in October 2018 the Facebook page of Dairy Farming Kenya had 264,000 follows and the equivalent page for the Kenya Dairy Farmers Forum had 40,000 follows.
But even with these significantly large levels of follows, the reality is that for the moment for large numbers of farmers, the reality is that the digital life (outside of borrowing money) is passing them by. The more hopeful signal is that this is not true of the newer generation of younger farmers who will be significantly more digital savvy than their mothers and fathers.
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