Digital agri: Zimbabwe farmers gain but mobile money costly

By Tonderayi Mukeredzi
HARARE, May 27 2020 (IPS) – Shurugwi communal farmer, Elizabeth Siyapi (57) can no longer be scammed by unscrupulous middlemen to sell her crops cheaply. Nowadays, before she takes her produce to the market she scours her mobile phone, which has become an essential digital agriculture data bank, for the best prices on the market.
“When my livestock are sick, instead of waiting for an extension officer to physically visit me for help, which may take days, I just consult my phone to look for information on what to do,” she told IPS.
Siyaphi is one of approximately 34,000 small holder farmers across the country collectively using two smartphone-based solutions, Kurima Mari and Agrishare, promoted by German development agency, Welthungerhilfe Zimbabwe, to find markets, extension services, weather information and hire agriculture equipment.
Tawanda Mthintwa Hove, the head of digital agriculture at Welthungerhilfe Zimbabwe, said farmers have been using Kurima Mari to learn good agricultural practices and link with markets since 2016.
“Kurima Mari is available offline which eliminates the need for buying data. An extension officer updates the application on a regular basis and the updates are shared using bluetooth making it costless to the farmer,” he told IPS. “Whilst Agrishare is an online-based solution, it enables farmers to secure the best equipment in their homes, which reduces mobility costs.”
Over the last three years, Siyaphi has utilised digital agriculture to find good agricultural practices. And her maize yield has multiplied from two 50-kilogram bags of maize to over three and a half tonnes.
• Though during the current COVID-19 lockdown in this southern African nation, her yields have reduced because of water restrictions.
• She told IPS that while markets remain available through the app, mostly via farmer to farmer contacts, transporting her produce to market has become the biggest problem because of lockdown restrictions. The current lockdown is in place indefinitely, though reviewed every two weeks by government.
Hove said that mobile digital technologies improve the quantity and quality of farmer’s harvests by giving them current information on production practices. They also facilitate linkages, weather advisory services, add efficiency to commodity systems, which in the long run help increase farmer’s yields and make them more profitable.
In recent years, Zimbabwe has witnessed a rapid growth in the use of digital agriculture.
• Other digital agriculture innovations include the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) and Econet Wireless championed, Ecofarmer Combo programme, which delivers weather-based insurance, real time location-based weather information and farming tips to over 80,000 communal farmers.
• Started by the churches in 2019, Turning Matabeleland Green, is another digital agriculture programme that uses satellite technology to send weather information and farming advice to over 2,000 farmers via the short message service.
Paul Zakariya, ZFU executive director, told IPS that mobile technology has enabled farmers to get farming advice in real-time, make online payments for inputs and services and access extension services from the tap of a phone, services that were previously available only through pamphlets and meetings.
According to the Food Sustainability Index, created by the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), “Precision farming and new digital tools can help, enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of farming while improving yields”.
But Charles Dhewa, the chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa, an indigenous systems company that operates eMkambo, another digital agriculture solution, said mobile applications were not yet directly benefitting smallholder farmers here.
“A few elite farmers with appropriate android phones could be benefitting here and there. That is why we have not positioned eMkambo Nest as a lead solution in our eMkambo platform,” he told IPS.
Dhewa stated that although the content was important, many farmers and traders don’t have time and bandwidth to toy with many of the available mobile and digital farming applications. The channels have reached their limits and are disintegrated, in addition to causing information asymmetry amongst farmers.
Digital literacy and the high cost of mobile communication is also reversing gains that could have been made by digital technology.
“The high cost of mobile money is worsening the situation, rendering mobile technology more of a luxury than a necessity,” he said. “Paying for agricultural commodities through mobile money is now more expensive.”
Zakariya said despite an increased deployment of digital technologies in agriculture, farmers were using ICTs much less to improve agri-business. Beyond mobile applications, the country has been slow in adopting other appropriate technologies and innovations crucial in commercialising the country’s agriculture, which remains mostly subsistence.
There is little use of high-end technologies with the potential to enhance production and value chain competitiveness such as crop protection technology, soil and moisture sensors, drones, precision farming, molecular technology, use of global positioning systems and geographic information systems (GIS).
Zakariya said the uptake of modern, sophisticated technologies was capital intensive for most farmers while many more farmers lacked knowledge on the use and efficacy of the newer technologies.
Dhewa said that GIS has a better future in agriculture than mobile applications sharing information.
• The Digitalisation of the African Agriculture Report 2018-19 said there has been a significant growth in digitalisation for agriculture across the continent during the past 10 years.
• The report, authored by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, said by 2019, there were about 390 distinct, active digitalisation for agriculture solutions, where 33 million small holder farmers were registered.
• But despite the impressive growth figures, only 42 percent of the registered farmers and pastoralists are using the solutions with any frequency.
According to Hove, it is rural farmers that have been hit hard by COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and prohibitive data costs, as such many can’t move their produce easily and have been deprived of income. This has forced some farmers to resort to middlemen.
Still, Hove said, some rural farmers have been able to find markets through the contact list (farmer to farmer) on the app as opposed to using the real-time markets list.
Meanwhile, Siyapi said that she and other farmers struggle to buy data. As a lead and successful farmer, she requires about $16 a month in data but says other farmers can make do with $2.20 to download updates and peruse the marketplace.
(In recent years, Zimbabwe has witnessed a rapid growth in the use of digital agriculture but uptake of modern technology is capital intensive for farmers.)