Hey, don’t ignore online agribusiness
What you need to know:
- Joseph Macharia is the founder of Mkulima Young, a farmer's online information and marketplace. Seeds of Gold spoke to him about the place of digital technology in farming and opportunities available.
What agribusiness opportunity did you see before starting Mkulima Young?
I noticed that most farmers were complaining of being exploited by brokers because they were not selling directly to consumers. I knew that digital technologies provide farmers with better marketing opportunities and decided to offer a solution for this problem. I created Mkulima Young, a social enterprise, to help transform market access and information.
How has the experience of running a farmers’ online site been for the past five years?
It has been an interesting learning experience as I have interacted online with thousands of young farmers, most of them the so-called telephone farmers, who have improved my understanding of their marketing needs. One thing that I have learnt is that innovation in digital technologies often causes new pain points, which continuously need to be addressed. For example, creating trust in online market relationships takes time.
So many online sites have sprouted up targeting farmers with information and offering marketing activities. Some are genuine, others are not. How does one tell the difference?
Certainly, it is tricky to verify the genuineness of online farming platforms. I try to understand the drive for the creation of the platform by looking at things like who is the creator of the platform and is the knowledge offered credible?
One should also look at the kind of interactions and reviews on the platform and check whether it is responsive to users’ needs.
Digital technology is currently at the centre of every human activity, but not many farmers have embraced it. What are those who are yet to ‘sign up’ missing?
My PhD research in Management at Queensland University of Technology, Business School in Australia focuses on medium-scale farmers who use digital technologies, a group that has been largely overlooked by both the government and agricultural organisations. This group of farmers is currently driving the agricultural transformation across Africa, therefore, the laggards may miss the revolution or join when it is too late. Digital technologies are helping farmers keep better records, irrigate their farms, identify and eliminate pests and diseases and sell their produce to a wider market.
What is your advice to young people seeking to reap from agribusiness without soiling their hands by offering mobile or online services?
Farming, like any other business venture, needs to benefit from entrepreneurial activity across the value chain. To run such platforms, collaboration with the right people is important and one should develop mentor relationships with those who have the experience of founding start-ups. Running an online platform for farmers requires passion for farming, a willingness to self-fund online platform development and an understanding of how social media works and how to engage farmers online.
For farmers to cut off brokers and earn more from produce, they should embrace digital marketing. Is this assertion correct?
To some extent this is correct, but farmers should be smart and use multiple opportunities to market their produce. Most online platforms, including Mkulima Young, do not charge farmers to market their produce, so there is very little risk for farmers when using such sites to reach a wider market. Farmers should adopt a hybrid marketing approach in which they use both traditional and virtual platforms to sell. By gaining experience in digital marketing and selling, farmers will increase their knowledge of market demands and also improve their understanding of what buyers as opposed to brokers are willing to pay for certain farm commodities.
Many farmers are going online to sell, but are buyers also shifting online to buy?
A shift to online requires a change in practice and must be underpinned by trust in the transaction. Just like farmers who are embracing the digital world, buyers are also taking the same route, thanks to ease in payment through mobile platforms and availability of courier services.