Hardship & Optimism in Kenya

Sam Strimling, a Research Associate on PAD’s Kenya team, reflects on the results of an initial round of interviews surveying farmers and agro-dealers across Kenya’s agricultural heartland.

AGRODEALER & FARMER COVID-19 SURVEY, APRIL-JUNE 2020

Between late April and early June 2020, Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD) interviewed 973 crop farmers and 483 agro-dealers registered to the MoA-INFO SMS platform in Kenya. The results of the survey are intended to assist policymakers and the development community at-large to more accurately assess and respond to the impacts of COVID-19 on rural smallholder farmers and other actors across the agricultural value chain. 

An overview of the results of this survey are summarized in this blog post. Please visit our organizational COVID-19 webpage to access survey instruments and background information, and to view a dashboard presenting global, and other country specific, insights from our survey data.

CONTEXT

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and associated public health mitigation measures — particularly stay-at-home orders and the closing of public spaces such as markets, schools and religious institutions — have had unique effects on poor rural populations in developing countries. In order to develop policies and interventions that effectively respond to the evolving impacts of the pandemic, policymakers require systematic and reliable data to understand the nature of challenges confronting actors across the agricultural value chain.

PAD is uniquely situated to source and analyse timely and accurate data from farmers and agro-dealers. Through our work with government and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners, our two-way digital advisory systems currently service 3.6 million farmers in eight countries. As a matter of course, we collect and disseminate information to empower farmers to adopt behaviour changes that improve productivity and their livelihoods. This blog post summarizes the results of an initial survey of smallholder farmers and agro-dealers administered through the MoA-INFO service in Kenya. 

BACKGROUND

In 2018, PAD launched MoA-INFO, a free two-way SMS platform developed in collaboration with the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. The impetus for the service arose in response to a national crisis stemming from a novel and rapidly-spreading invasive pest, the Fall Armyworm (FAW). An import from the Americas, FAW decimated African crops, with disproportionately dire impacts for maize farmers — a staple crop and critical source of nutrition in many sub-Saharan African communities. 

Today, through a combination of push messages, menu-based content, and interactive decision-support tools, MoA-INFO provides actionable information to farmers to optimize the cultivation of eight crops (maize, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, bananas, tomatoes, and sorghum) in addition to its foundational advisory content relating to how to monitor and address FAW infestation. Farmers rely on agro-dealers to purchase inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticide, etc.), but also rely on these traders as a source of advice and repository of expertise. As the service matured, agro-dealers have been recruited to the platform to better inform them about farming best practices and the optimal use of inputs so that they can better service their customers. 

At present, approximately 367,000 farmers and 1,246 agro-dealers are registered on the MoA-INFO service across all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Given PAD’s ongoing engagement with farmers and agro-dealers via the platform, we are well-placed to survey and interpret data sourced from smallholder and agro-dealer populations which other NGOs and policymakers may have more limited access to.

SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS

Between April 29 and June 2, PAD interviewed 973 crop farmers and 483 agro-dealers. Interviews of farmers and agro-dealers covered 44 and 40 counties, respectively. The farmers interviewed were 58% male, 41 years old on average, and 79% grew maize as their primary crop. The agro-dealers interviewed owned Small to Mid-size Enterprises (SMEs), employing an average of two employees and averaging 1.3 million Kenyan Shillings (KSH – approximately US$12,000) in annual sales. 

FINDINGS

A COVID-related challenge confronting farmers in Kenya is a reported reduction in working hours on the part of many agro-dealers. While only 3% of surveyed agro-dealers reported closing their stores entirely, a majority (65%) of agro-dealers reported closing between 4-6pm in the seven days prior to being surveyed, earlier than the typical closing hours of 6-8pm. 

Decisions to close early may be partially attributable to the Kenyan Government’s 7pm-5am nationwide curfew, which was in place while the survey was in the field. However, 80% of agro-dealers reported an overall decrease in footfall, and 76% reported lower sales relative to the same month last year; this suggests that agro-dealers have not been able to condense their regular operations into fewer hours. 

Furthermore, 62% of agro-dealers interviewed reported that they expect future footfall to continue to be low, and the same number reported low expectations for future sales. Typically, agro-dealers report the highest volume of sales during February and August, when farmers buy their inputs to coincide with the planting schedule for Kenya’s long and short rain seasons, respectively. We hope that future surveys will be able to assess the extent to which the expectations reported by agro-dealers in this round are borne out.

The most common reason for diminished farmer footfall offered by agro-dealers — cited by 81% of agro-dealers interviewed — was that farmers had insufficient resources to purchase inputs. Agro-dealers have tried to address this perceived constraint on business by extending credit to trusted farmers. Fifty-four percent of farmers surveyed reported increased prices being charged by suppliers and, in turn, 47% reported having to increase the prices they charged to farmers. 

Increases in input prices are corroborated by farmers: of the 35% who purchased fertilizer, 44% reported price increases, and of the 19% who reported purchasing pesticides, 50% reported a price increase. While only 6% of farmers purchased seeds, 58% of these farmers reported price increases.

Reported price increases were not limited to inputs: 83% of farmers interviewed reported an increase in the price of maize. While price increases are not uncommon at this time of year (the ‘lean season’), the reported effect was particularly dramatic: 86% of farmers reported difficulties buying food due to market changes, and 46% reported having to reduce the size or number of household meals. Moreover, 75% of farmers interviewed reported having to eat into savings, and 55% reported borrowing money in the last 30 days, to cover living expenses. These patterns of reported dis-saving and borrowing may limit farmers’ investment budgets and demand for inputs in the next agricultural season. Moreover, these trends may be further compounded by disruptions to the labor market in the agricultural sector: 33% of farmers reported hiring workers for fewer days to do work on their farm than at the same time last year, and 29% reported working fewer days on others’ farms.

Female crop farmers reported greater food insecurity than their male counterparts across several measures: compared to male farmers, female crop farmers reported that household members reported spending fewer days on their own farms and paying higher prices for fertilizer. Female crop farmers were also significantly more likely than their male counterparts to report that they had had to rely on assistance from family to cover living expenses and having to reduce the size or number of meals served in the 30 days prior to being surveyed.

To inform a better understanding of the persistent effect of COVID-19 on food security, including potential differential effects by gender, we plan to interview farmers over time to monitor changes in staple food prices (relative to the same time the previous year). PAD will commence a second round of surveys in July to monitor how the situation evolves, and to assess shifts in reported welfare and expectations associated with a relaxation or termination of restrictions on movement. 

In good news, farmers seemed optimistic about their forthcoming harvests: 52% of farmers interviewed reported that they expect a more bountiful harvest than they did in the previous year; 66% reported that they expect to sell their produce in the market at a higher price; and just 14% reported that they expect not to be able to sell part of their harvest. Farmers indicated that expectations of improved harvests were premised on improved rainfall, as well as higher observed market prices, which led farmers to expect higher prices for future harvests. A majority of farmers (86%) reported having storage space which may enable them to more readily withstand potential market disruptions. 

Agro-dealers continue to look for ways to best serve farmers, and adapt to an adverse business environment, with 29% reporting that they had implemented changes to sales. Of the subset of farmers who said they had made such changes, 21% reported allowing farmers to pay for inputs using mobile money. While payment via M-PESA – the mobile money platform operated by Kenya’s largest mobile network provider – had been common throughout Kenya prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, these agro-dealers specifically mentioned instituting these transactions as a means of adapting to the pandemic. Overall, 62% of agro-dealers reported changes in operations due to COVID-19, the two most commonly reported were availing farmers of hand washing options (50%) and encouraging mask use (34%). Moreover, while 26% of agro-dealers stated they were unable to purchase inputs from suppliers – and a majority of these agro-dealers (58%) attributed this difficulty to constrained supply of inputs – many reported making changes to how they stock inputs in order to meet farmers demand. Reported changes included using mobile money when transacting with suppliers, and changing the quantity, time frame, or delivery method for orders. Overall, just over a quarter of agro-dealers (27%) reported that they foresee being unable to meet farmer demand.

While both farmers and agro-dealers have encountered economic challenges related to COVID-19, there nonetheless appears to be broad agreement that, from a public health standpoint, government measures constitute the right course of action: 76% of farmers assessed government actions as “very effective” or “somewhat effective” in mitigating the spread of the virus. Seventy-three percent of agro-dealers and 67% of farmers said that they feared contracting the virus, and 33% of agro-dealers named loss of wage income as a concern.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Taken together, the data collected so far suggest several potential strategies to insulate smallholder populations and agricultural value chains that rely on smallholder productivity from potentially damaging impacts associated with COVID-19. While many farmers remain optimistic about future harvests, there are signs of input market disruptions and increasingly stressed household consumption. 

Providing cash transfers and social assistance to smallholder populations will help to insulate poor farming households from the effects of increased market prices for maize flour and other foodstuffs, and help to sustain demand for agricultural inputs to support the forthcoming planting cycle. On May 12, the Indian government released a relief package valued at approximately US$265 billion, which combines targeted financial support (including loans, cash transfers, and wage increases) with direct provision of agricultural staples (i.e., wheat, rice, and pulses) at the individual and household level. A similar package would likely go a long way toward relieving the financial distress and consumption difficulties faced by Kenyan farmers.

Farmers reported strong demand for digital information relating to the pandemic: 88% of farmers surveyed reported an interest in receiving digital updates related to COVID-19. Of those interested, 74% requested public health advisory content, 47% requested news-style updates relating to the progress of the pandemic (cases, recoveries, etc.), and 34% requested updates about pandemic-related government policies and actions. 

Overall, 98% of agro-dealers reported communicating with suppliers via mobile phone, and 70% reported receiving messages from farmers about inputs at least once a day. By establishing formal channels across the value chain, farmers can communicate their needs and preferences. Better informed agro-dealers may be better positioned to overcome challenges to meeting farmer demand — for example through communicating farmer requests to suppliers, thus ensuring that needed inputs are available. Additionally, enabling agro-dealers to efficiently communicate with local suppliers to gather information on input availability and prices could help them procure inputs on time. Finally, such a channel would assist agro-dealers in implementing changes to how they stock, which about one-third have already reported adopting, including using cashless transactions and having inputs delivered.

CONCLUSION

As part of the World Bank’s One Million Farmers initiative, PAD is working with 14 start-ups across Kenya which collectively are working to deploy digital technologies toward improving market linkages, input delivery, and provision of crop insurance, credit, and extension advice. At an organizational level, we hope to use the information collected here to more effectively design and implement a service that will empower smallholder farmers and agro-dealers with information to more effectively mitigate challenges associated with this unprecedented disruption to the supply chain.

PAD’s theory of change is based around evidence that well-sourced, timely and actionable information can empower farmers and policy-makers to act in the world to improve lives and secure livelihoods. This theory is core to the design and implementation of the services we deliver across all of our projects globally. Sourcing opinions and data from farmers to more accurately understand their challenges and aspirations is critical for delivering timely information for practical application in farmers’ fields and households. The information collated through this survey and similar surveys in other geographies is intended to contribute to the evidence base in a rapidly shifting context with new and ill-defined challenges. We welcome your feedback and interest in partnering with us as we iterate our work.

This blog post was updated on 07.06.20 to include new gender-related insights