Smartphone App Tracks African Indigenous Vegetables for Improved Food Safety in Western Kenya
This post is written by Sara Hendery, communications coordinator at Virginia Tech's Center for International Research, Education and Development (CIRED).
Ever wonder what kind of journey your food went on to get to your plate?
A recent smartphone app being used in Kenya is addressing how that journey might impact the safety — as well as the consumption and demand — of African indigenous vegetables (AIV).
Virginia Tech’s CIRED, Egerton University in Kenya and the Australian start-up, AgUnity, have adapted the AgUnity blockchain-based digital platform to track AIVs from the producer to the end consumer.
In Kenya, the AIV value chain is informal and disparate, which makes it difficult to track AIV safety. Information about how the vegetables are grown, transported to market or processed rarely makes it to the final buyer. Information asymmetry along the value chain often disadvantages farmers who put extra effort into their safety process.
A Digital Approach
Value chain actors, including farmers, traders and retailers, in western Kenya are using the AgUnity app. AgUnity’s version 3 (V.3) app can confirm agreed-upon prices and quantities of vegetables, provide quality assurance and knowledge on whether chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been applied and track the movement of the vegetables between transactions. With record keeping a core functionality, the wallet function for asset movement is inherent in the app, driving financial literacy among value chain actors.
Other services, such as training and a marketplace, are also offered on the platform. Value chain actors can use the platform to market their produce and learn what vegetable varieties are in high demand to better satisfy the market. The V.3 app uses blockchain technology to ensure that all transactions between its users are permanently and securely recorded on a dedicated, unchangeable, distributed blockchain ledger.
The V.3 app runs in a "super-app" ecosystem, where other potentially relevant apps can be developed locally and integrated with currently running functionalities. Different digital services can be offered for individual farmers and to strengthen farmers’ groups and overall value chain governance.
Value, Constraints and Possibilities
AIVs — locally grown, valuable sources of micronutrients — are often limited in availability. Lack of knowledge on growing practices, lack of transparency and trust in transactions, limited alignment between value chain actors’ activities and food safety are major contributors to their low consumption, and thus, food and nutrition insecurity.
An early project survey in western Kenya revealed consumer concern over the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers used to grow vegetables and the water quality used to clean vegetables post-harvest.
“When we started the project, we weren’t sure if blockchain technology was going to be the best option for addressing consumer concerns that lead to low consumption,” said Jessica Agnew, assistant director of research, operations and program management at CIRED and one of the project leads. “In the initial value chain analysis, including questionnaires and focus group discussions, we learned that assurance of the safety of the vegetables is one of the most important factors when deciding to buy vegetables. Blockchain is well suited to validate and safeguard this type of information, especially when the value chain is informal and disparate as in western Kenya.”
Working with producers, traders and retailers, criteria for grading the vegetables have been developed with faculty from Egerton University. AIVs are assessed on a grading system, obtaining a ‘grade A’ or ‘grade B,’ depending on if pesticides are used or not. The vegetables are then separated and tracked along the value chain by the V.3 app. Extension officers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries work with producers and traders to verify the grade of the vegetables.
From Phone to Plate
One of the ultimate goals of the project is to improve nutrition security by encouraging consumers to eat more AIVs. The V.3 app has the potential to accomplish this while also creating incentives for other value chain actors to trade in safe, Grade A vegetables.
“Local vegetables have been known and widely accepted in terms of health benefits,” said Monicah Rapando, an AgUnity field officer. “Most people are now consuming local vegetables to improve their health status, leading to higher demand in the market. Organically produced local vegetables earn even higher than the others. With technology advancement in record keeping, we shall see improved marketing trends where farmers, retailers and traders keep records for future reference and informed decision-making using the transaction history in the app. We also expect to see minimum losses since there’s upfront communication between buyers and farmers where both need to agree before the farmer goes to pluck the vegetables.”
Since AIVs are traditionally produced and marketed by women in Kenya, another component of the project is ensuring women maintain their important position in the value chain. CIRED’s Women and Gender in International Development team will evaluate the project’s impacts on and benefits to women. The team will also evaluate how digital technologies more generally may or may not improve women’s involvement in vegetable production and if it could potentially attract more youth to agriculture.
In late May 2021, smartphones equipped with the AgUnity V.3 app were deployed to farmers, retailers and traders of nutritious vegetables, who also helped inform its design to better address obstacles Kenyan farmers tend to face in the field.
Betty is one of the farmers to receive training on techniques for growing AIVs, as well as how to use the app to market her products.
“Today’s training has been helpful to me as a farmer,” she said. “I have learned about organic farming of local vegetables using manure, both with compost and animal waste. I will no longer use inorganic fertilizer that I previously used. Secondly, with the phone, I will be confirming with retailers and traders if they need vegetables and for how much before going to the farm to pluck, unlike previously when I would just do it blindly and maybe not sell, leading to losses. The app will help me in record keeping and follow up with my customers on payments, unlike previously, where I could sell on credit and forget.”
Every year, low- and middle-income countries experience billions of dollars of losses due to foodborne illnesses. While consumption of vegetables is vital for improved health and nutrition, contaminated vegetables are a quiet conduit to foodborne disease. By increasing awareness and knowledge through a digital approach, farmers like Betty get a closer look at the journey their produce takes, and with the touch of a button, help ensure it safely gets to a plate.
This project is funded by the Long-Term Assistance and Services for Research (LASER) Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine (PULSE). Contact Jessica Agnew at [email protected] for more information.
About LASER PULSE
LASER PULSE is a five-year, $70 million program funded through USAID’s Innovation, Technology and Research Hub that delivers research-driven solutions to field-sourced development challenges in USAID interest countries. A consortium led by Purdue University, with core partners Catholic Relief Services, Indiana University, Makerere University and the University of Notre Dame, implements the LASER PULSE program through a growing network of 2,500+ researchers and development practitioners in 61 countries.
This publication was made possible through support provided by the Center for Development Research, U.S. Global Development Lab and USAID through the LASER PULSE program under the terms of Cooperative Agreement No. 7200AA18CA00009. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID.