A farmer picks tea leaves at a tea garden in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 4, 2019.  (Xinhua/Li Yan)

Digital solutions are rapidly changing the value chains of African nations' agriculture sector that is steadily shedding off traditional operations.

NAIROBI, May 28 (Xinhua) -- When it became harder in Kenya for plant and animal health specialists to travel to farms to physically meet farmers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides embraced digital agro-extension services.

And when farmers found it difficult to access inputs like seeds and fertilizer, they turned to online platforms to buy them.

Similarly, digital solutions have come in handy for farmers to sell their products, with producers delivering food directly to consumers, and earning more, rather than going through brokers.

Digital solutions that include websites, social media platforms and specific apps are now at the center of the east African nation's rapidly changing agriculture sector that is steadily shedding off traditional operations.

At every stage of the agricultural value chain, software developers, farmers, transporters, agro-dealers and social entrepreneurs in Kenya and the rest of Africa have found digital solutions to perform various tasks and solve arising problems.

In Kenya, as in many other African nations, these digital solutions have been accelerated by the outbreak of COVID-19, with all actors in the agricultural value chains embracing them to foster social distancing and beat restrictions embraced by governments to curb the spread of the disease.

"Yes, the partial lockdowns and other restrictions by governments in response to COVID-19 have made people conscious of digital solutions," said Joseph Macharia, a social entrepreneur behind Mkulima Young, a popular online marketplace. "People are now buying and selling online out of the need to do so."

Macharia noted that the number of farmers, agro-dealers, trainers and buyers both in Kenya and across Africa using the platform has grown four-fold in the last two months.

"Online marketplaces have become a hit with all big and small actors in the agricultural value chain who want their products or services known since traditional markets currently remain stifled," he said, adding that farmers and other agriculture players from South Africa, Malawi and Uganda are using the platform.

According to him, digital technologies have become an enabler of agribusiness as countries in Africa battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The disease has certainly contributed immensely to the digital transformation of agricultural value chain in Africa by enhancing access to market and information," Macharia said.

Beatrice Macharia of Growth Point, an agro-consultancy based in Kajiado, south of Kenya's capital Nairobi, said that driven by the tough circumstances brought about by COVID-19, farmers in the east African nation and other parts of Africa are embracing digital solutions.

"Initially, most farmers did not fully adopt digital practices because they could still travel to places and get physical interactions if need be. But right now, with the curfews, lockdowns and need to maintain social distancing, they are using videos, photos and various apps to find solutions to problems," she said. "The digital future that many were talking about is here and has come faster."

For the last two months, she has barely met farmers physically but has handled hundreds of queries and received consultancy fees via mobile money, Macharia said.

File photo shows that farmers sort tomatoes for sale in Kirinyaga county, central Kenya.  (Xinhua/Njoroge Kaburo)

John Karithi, a tomato farmer in Kenya, observed that for the first time, he has bought inputs, fertilizer and received agro-consultancy through social media platform WhatsApp.

"What is affecting my tomatoes? They are turning brown and full of water inside," he posted on a farmers' group, accompanied by a photo. Karithi received information on what the problem was and drug to use, which he bought via mobile money payment and was delivered to him via courier services.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agricultural transformation in Africa is being boosted by the widespread use of mobile phones and low internet costs.

Internet penetration in Africa stands at 39 percent of the population, which translates to 527 million people in the continent, according to the World Bank. 

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