Kenyan innovators are betting on digital technologies to attract young people to an agriculture industry that currently is dominated by an aging population. With a 98 percent mobile phone penetration, according to the latest data from the Communications Authority of Kenya, the cellphone is proving to be an important source of extension services in areas where such resources are not available.
As a young girl in central Kenya, Peninah Wanja witnessed firsthand the challenge of raising cattle without professional help.
"Growing up On a farm, my mother had two cows. They were poorly managed. They yielded two cups of milk," said Wanja.
As a practicing extension officer, Wanja noticed gaps in information made farmers rely on trial and error in their day-to-day activities. The results yielded low productivity.
"It's a gap that I saw, because when you look at the statistics and the nature that is on the ground, our government has provided one extension officer for close to 4,000 farmers. So, there is actually a need for these critical services," said Wanja.
Wanja came up with DigiCow, a mobile phone application that offers expert advice to farmers and allows them to keep up-to-date records on their cows.
Stanley Kamau was among the early users of the app. Now, a year since its launch and almost a year since he started using it, he talks of increased milk yields, healthier herds and a well-organized farm.
"They got a platform on the app, where for example, during the time for mating, you keep your records. Then, you get to know when your cow will calf down. But in the old way, we used to take dates, and you do the cumbersome work of counting down. But with the Digi app, it is helpful because it sends you a reminder on when your cow will calf down," said Kamau.
Eighty percent of Kenya's population is made up of small-scale farmers, according to the World Bank. DigiCow is an example of how technology can be used to bridge the knowledge gaps in the farming sector, while at the same time, ensuring food security. It is also a way of encouraging Kenya's unemployed youth to take up farming, according to Boniface Akuku, an information and communications expert based in Nairobi.
"Research says the average age of a Kenyan farmer is 60, which is almost a retired person. That person has no energy, so what we need is what I would call mindset philosophy. We need to change the minds of our people to encourage young people to engage into farming. Otherwise, if that does not change, the uptake of these technologies will be zero," said Boniface.
With mobile phone subscribers in Kenya, mobile-based solutions make sense, as information can reach millions of people, while at the same time, changing the way Kenyans farm, said Boniface.
"African agriculture must be disrupted, and we have no two ways about it. Even if we do not disrupt it by technology,already climate is disrupting it," he said.
To deal with issues of illiteracy, DigiCow has a voice-based service — which Wanja says has proven helpful to the older farmer.