By Fredrick Odiero
For a long time farmers within the Lake Region Economic bloc (LREB) have had to depend on other sources such as cartels or third parties to get information to their disadvantage.
The situation has even been made worse due to the limited number of agricultural extension officers across the country following a government freeze on employment of civil servants.
The ratio of one extension officer per 3,700 instead of the recommended one per 3,400 is not realistic at the end of the day.
But thanks to an initiative by the Sugar directorate to come up with a mobile App which will enable cane farmers to access vital information without necessarily going through the tedious exercise of locating scarce extension officers.
Already some 600 farmers in Western Kenya have signed into the App via the Play store or App Store.
A farmer from Trans Nzoia, Richard Simba who is now using the App through his smartphone says he can now know soil types and fertilizers through the App known as Miwa Bora App.
Simba says that he does not have to travel all the way to Kitale like in the past to look for extension services since everything is done at his door step.
Samuel Bonyo, a farmer from Chemelil in Muhoroni Sub County also says that the App is welcome since he can now secure information at his door step.
Bonyo who is also the chairman of the Chemelil Out growers Company (COC) encourages his members to use the vital App, saying it is a welcome move since it will spare cane farmers the trouble of looking for extension officers who are nowadays hard to come by.
Jackton Omondi, farmer, from Miwani says that he will not depend on third parties for information any more following the development of the App. Cartels have been taking advantage of farmers to fleece them due to lack of proper information, he adds.
The Chief Executive Committee Member (CECM) for agriculture, livestock and fisheries for Bungoma County, Michael Wanjala who is also a farmer says that the App is the most sure way of eliminating cartels who have been thriving on lack of proper information about the sub subsector.
Wanjala says farmers can now secure information about pricing, COMESA and other relevant information.
He says Kenya produces some 400 metric tons of cane per day compared to the required 600 metric tons per day, noting that the deficit of 200 metric tons is filled by cartels that end up importing surpluses for selfish ends.
According to a technical engineer at the Sugar directorate, Richard Magero, the App which has been developed in partnership with the Agriculture Fund Authority will be beneficial to cane farmers since they will be able to access information at their door steps.
Magero says that the App is important since there are very few extension officers across the country. “The ratio of one officer per 3,700 extension officers instead of one per 3400 is quite untenable,” he says.
Magero says that farmers can now use the App to know soil types, location of mills anywhere in the country, adding that even transporters can use the App to know where cane has matured and varieties.
He however says that challenges being encountered by the sugar directorate is that some farmers still do not have smartphones to enable them use the App, adding that a USSD version is under consideration to address that challenge.
Magero says another challenge is language barrier in some areas because the information is only available in English.
The official says the technical department is working on a Swahili which will soon be available, noting that network failure in some areas can sometimes cause delays in using the App.
The director general of Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) Kello Harsame says the App idea has come at a time stakeholders have been demanding timeliness, flexibility and convenience in the access to information within the sugar business.
Harsame says that the government will continue to invest significantly in the digital infrastructure to enable different businesses to be done through mobile handsets with the rest of the world. “Many farmers can now get information about growing their crops at their convenience,” he said.
The official says that the Miwa Bora App introduces a simpler and traceable way of lodging a request to the extension officers in a real time situation hence giving stakeholders the assurance that the miller and the sugar directorate have received a request and will offer consistent and proper support in response to farmers need.
Harsame says that President Uhuru Kenyatta is committed to addressing woes afflicting the sugar subsector.
The Director Sugar directorate, Willis Audi has reiterated the government’s commitment to addressing woes afflicting the sector.
He says such hiccups includes high cost of production, high debt portfolio for state owned mills, cane shortage declining yields, low value addition, initiatives, inadequate research and extension.
Audi said other bottlenecks which have hit the industry include ageing equipment, reduced incomes to farmers and weak regulatory frameworks. The director said that some of these challenges such as high cost of production persist to date.
Audi says the Miwa Bora Mobile App will be used by cane farmers to access information, adding that the government has put in place mitigation measures.
Audi says that through the presidential sugar industry task force certain recommendations were made. Some of them include increasing cane and sugar production and productivity.
He says other measures include enhanced milling efficiency and competitiveness coupled with improved competitiveness of the state owned firms.
The official further says that the government will develop appropriate pricing and funding mechanisms and promote sugar marketing and trade. “There will also be compliance with COMESA requirements” he says.
Audi says there will be policy legal and regulatory and institutional reforms in the sector, adding that the same will be done through enhanced technical capabilities of county agriculture staff through trainings.
He says they are multiplying clean seed cane in collaboration with KALRO-SRI and millers and licensing of molasses have been digitized with the gazettement of the sugar pricing protocols.