What does it feel like to be a young farmer selling in Kenya in 2020?

Some turned to farming due to unemployment or underemployment and to support their family’s agribusiness. Some, however, venture into farming to build digital platforms that facilitate market linkages. Farmers are now using online platforms to sell their produce. This happens in two ways:

  • Formal marketplaces, through multi-sided marketplaces built to connect farmers to markets.

  • “Social agriculture”, the practice of using social media to sell agricultural commodities.

Formal marketplaces and social media platforms create new ways for farmers to search and discover new markets. Traditionally, agricultural commodities were sold through middlemen at local markets; this model enabled the proliferation of middlemen, who controlled marketing, pricing, and access to clients. Farmers are turning to digital platforms to sell at competitive prices and link up with clients.

"You are your own boss when it comes to farming. You get the returns and the profits more than what you would have gotten in the offices or in those white collar jobs you so desire. So I have seen it change my life, it’s changing many people’s lives. Yes and it's growing the economy. You are creating employment."

Experience selling on Formal Marketplaces

Formal platforms expose farmers to a wider market, however in this sector, there are few platforms and most of them are not well known. Some examples are Ecosokoni, MkulimaYoung and Young Farmers Kenya. These platforms are not designed to facilitate  end-to-end transactions, e.g., payment, fulfillment, and logistics, meaning that all the transactions are carried out off the platform, and the platform now acts as a connection.

Since most of these formal marketplace platforms are not widely known, farmers report slow sales through them and may look for other avenues to connect to the market.

“I also tried this application Mkulima Young where you post your product, and you wait, but the problem with Mkulima Young, not many people know about it. If you post there, there are a few people who'll see. You know mostly people who you contact daily are easily people who are on your WhatsApp so when I post on my WhatsApp, I get customers who are ready to buy—who'll access my product directly.”

PRINCE, 24, FARMER (TOMATOES, WATERMELON)​ Tweet

Experience selling on Social Agriculture

Farmers use social media not only for selling, but also to showcase the farming process as a way to engage their audience. Different social platforms offer different advantages for farmers depending on the target demographic and what the platform is best suited for. Facebook and WhatsApp are the most commonly used platforms, while Instagram is the least used. Some farmers use multiple farmer groups within Facebook or Whatsapp while others use their personal accounts to create awareness. For most farmers, the social media strategy entails amassing followers by sharing the farming process to build credibility with clients and having frequent posts. 

“Without a doubt, were it not for social media, I would be lacking now the market. I shouldn’t have a market for my product, because 90% of the consumers of my products are online actually.”​

IAN, 33, FARMER (POULTRY)​ Tweet

So what does this mean for the farmer? What would help them in this sector?

1. Developing critical digital marketing skills as they become more necessary

Farmers need more than agricultural knowledge to succeed. Entrants need to figure out many variables: where, how, what, and when to farm, weather patterns, soil types, and which seeds to plant. Only after harvest do they now figure out where to market.

Due to the perishability of the produce, farmers have to learn the dynamics of the market to succeed, usually using rapid and aggressive online marketing to make sales. Education plays a key role in knowledge, awareness, and marketing. The more skilled farmers are in these areas, the better their chances of building a sustainable business.

“I farm in Nyeri, but sometimes because our farm cannot meet the supply, I buy from other farmers and resell. Right now, I cannot be at the farm because I have already established my business. I have specialised in marketing and selling the product, people farm and I sell.”

2. Farmers still depend on offline markets

Online platforms connect farmers to the market, but they still depend on offline markets for pricing, understand the evolving client needs, find B2B markets, bidding, tap into niche markets and product showcases.

“Without a doubt, were it not for social media, I would be lacking now the market. I shouldn’t have a market for my product, because 90% of the consumers of my products are online actually.”

IAN, 33, FARMER (POULTRY)​ Tweet

3. Young farmers are rewriting the narrative of farming

Youth farmers are using digital platforms to encourage more young people to join the sector. They use digital technology as an evangelist platform to change the stereotype of farming, viewed as designed for older or rural people. They also showcase the farming process that more people would understand the rigorous process and now appreciate the work rather than bargain for lower prices.

“So I have some clients who tell me, you're still young you can be doing a white collar job in the office and I’m like—and things like that, you see? If people could visualize agriculture could be a bigger thing and it’s not like it’s so poor, that is why you have opted for agriculture. Like it’s not poverty or an education thing. It’s like—you can be so passionate about it like I am. We are young people, you see, our lines of business are mostly for old people, so they don’t believe in you.”

JOY, 23, FARMER (ONIONS)​ Tweet

4. The farming sector does have barriers for inclusivity

Women farmers described how digital channels can level the playing field, an aspect they appreciated.  Some mentioned implied sexism, especially in offline markets, leading to a preference for online channels.

Most farms are situated outside urban areas due to the availability of vast and arable land, but markets  are largely within towns and cities, where farmers can find more clients and sell for better prices. 

“[There’s] a little bit of male chauvinism around. I won’t lie. There is a lot of sexism that is around. But there is also the advantage of the fact that you are a woman that people will easily believe you or trust in you.”

MILLY, 26, FARMER (ONION)​ Tweet

Conclusion

The farmers here are likely still the exception, not the rule, in Kenya. They are relatively early adopters of these digital practices, and as such, are perhaps better educated, more connected, slightly more urban, and slightly more tolerant to risk-taking than other farmers might be. But they are also pioneers, illustrating ways in which platform livelihoods are a possibility for the farming sector. 

We found farmers engaged with platforms in several settings: 1) Some live in urban areas with their farms situated in rural areas. They serve the urban areas because that is where their market is; 2) Semi-urban farmers live and work in semi-urban areas and look for markets in urban towns; 3) Rural farmers, most likely educated in urban areas, return to their rural homes after graduation to manage the farm. 

The twelve elements of platform livelihoods demonstrate that participation in digital markets and spaces is more than simply a transaction. It is a set of practices: social, learning, and transactional. Digital platforms can involve frustrations and a fair amount of hustle, but also agency, flexibility, and the promise of better earnings for farmers. 

Explore the report results on other sectors

Logistics  – Fast-paced work, driven by the algorithm. Structured weekly earnings, support in bookkeeping, budgeting, and saving.

MSEs – Experiences with platform sales (via formal marketplaces, social commerce, paid and free online advertising).

Creatives – Digital channels as a source of inspiration, distribution, and a platform to educate audiences on the value of art.

Crosscutting themes – Reflection on cross-cutting themes around rurality, gender, inclusion for differently-abled people, and fractional work.

This platform livelihoods research was conducted by Qhala in collaboration with Caribou Digital and in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation.