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Crop exporters get app to monitor work on farms

Every year, thousands of small-scale farmers in Kenya generate income by growing crops for the export market. But they are scattered all over the country and it is often an uphill task for exporters to keep track of their farming processes. Yet, continuous monitoring of contracted farmers is important to ensure exported products meet quality standards.

To address this, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) recently introduced a mobile and web application called Farmforce—the first of its kind worldwide—that makes it easy for exporters to monitor and make follow-ups on the operations of contract farmers.

At this month’s 2014 AGRA Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, agricultural experts noted that the effective roll out of such technologies can increase the value of marketed agricultural produce which is currently at Sh334.7 billion based on the 2014 Kenya Economic Survey.

Ms Faith Kamenchu, project manager at SFSA, notes that the digital platform is already being used by exporting companies to manage small-holder farmers in countries such as Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guatemala and Thailand.

She notes that Farmforce allows exporters to create a database of all farmers they work with. The information captured include farmers’ names, photos, locations, sizes of land, crops grown and farming groups they belong to.

“With this bio-data, exporters have detailed information on farmers and can thus reach them in case of any problems,” Ms Kamenchu says. In addition, she notes that each farmer is assigned a unique barcode for ease in traceability.

The planting campaign module in the application, explains Ms Kamenchu, allows exporters to organise a planting programme for small-scale farmers that they contract.

This segment focuses on all activities undertaken by the growers until crops are removed from the fields. It comprises planting, weeding and harvesting dates. It also contains a list of planting materials, fertilisers and pesticides recommended for use by the exporters.

This section is open for field extension officers employed to supervise farmers on the ground. With mobile phones that are easy to carry in pockets, they are able to travel to the fields and guide smallholder farmers by referring to exporters’ requirements contained in the Farmforce platform.

“If a farmer needs to know the correct amount of fertilisers and pesticides to use, the officer can easily check on his phone and advice accordingly,” says Mr Rashid Soud, Farmforce Implementation Analyst at SFSA.

There have been constant assertions by the European Union (EU) that exported fresh produce from Kenya has high chemical residue levels, a perception that forced this trading bloc to set stringent health standards for horticultural exports, including fruits, vegetables and flowers from Kenya.

The Farmforce application can thus come in handy for exporters who seek to promote international food safety and sustainability standards among farmers they contract. As they guide the farmers, he adds, the field extension officers also use the application to collect and key in data on farmers’ activities in the fields.

“If one planted late or her crops were heavily attacked by pests, the system captures this information.”

Through synchronisation, the Farmforce mobile application feeds the keyed information into a central server which allows real-time tracking of agricultural activities by exporters at all times, while just seated on their desks. Basically, Mr Soud states, the application facilitates the creation of virtual farms that exporters can constantly monitor online.

This information makes it easy for exporters to project yields and harvest periods in good time so as to effectively meet their clients’ needs.

For example, says Mr Soud, if exporters get information that heavy rains destroyed 20 per cent of crops in targeted farms, this catastrophe is bound to reduce profit margins and undermine their market supply. But if the information comes early enough, they will have ample time to devise mitigating strategies.

For accurate data collection, extension officers are supposed to be in the field as they input information into the Farmforce system. The application enables the exporters to verify this as it indicates the Global Positioning System (GPS) codes of a farmer’s plot and that of the extension officer’s location as at the time of data collection.

“The officers are aware that they can’t just sit under a tree, cook up data and send to exporters,” Ms Kamenchu states. At collection points, harvested crops are weighed using a blue-tooth-enabled spring scale that automatically records the weight of the products into the Farmforce system.

“This prevents fraud where some extension officers may collude with farmers to swindle cash from exporters by exaggerating the weight of produce delivered,” says Ms Kamenchu.

Mr Soud notes that the application can also assist exporters to create assessment forms and questionnaires for conducting surveys such as those required by auditors of food safety standards like Global GAP, Fair Trade and Organic.

He notes that exporters interested in the application are first trained, together with their field agents, on its usage. “We also set up the platform for them and customise it to meet their needs.”

The Farmforce mobile application runs on Android devices, ranging from low cost phones to high end tablets. The Farmforce web application can be used on any computer with a standard web browser.

Since Farmforce only captures farming activities from the time of planting until the harvests are received at collection points, Mr Soud notes that “it would be good to have another application that tracks the processing activities of farm produce.”

sooko@ke.nationmedia.com

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