COVID-19: How Digital Technologies Keep Farmers Productive 

Unarguably, the rampaging COVID 19 pandemic has made more clear than ever the need for and role of digital technologies to strengthen and scale innovations to assist smallholders farmers and other value chain actors.

At the onset of the pandemic last year, movement restrictions and the cycles of lockdowns in different countries threatened to slow down progress among farmers and other partners.

Into this void, new digital technologies and tools promoted by the International Potato Center (CIP) and its partners are transforming agricultural extension and markets for sweet potato and potato agri-food systems by ensuring the timely provision of technical information to farmers, extension staff, markets and vulnerable communities.

In Kenya, CIP partnered with the private company Arifu to digitize existing good agricultural practices (GAPs) for sweetpotato, enabling farmers to access this information through an interactive platform.

Collaborating since 2020 under the FCDO-funded “Development and Delivery of Biofortified Crops at Scale” (DDBIO) project, CIP and Arifu have connected 15,000 farmers with free digital trainings available in two languages (English and Kiswahili).

Given that smartphone use is still low among smallholder farmers, CIP is using SMS technology over basic cell phones to distribute this information, while Arifu promotes data on COVID 19 related to health, finances, education and stress management.

The initial success of this project has encouraged GIZ to offer its support to help CIP and Arifu reach another 30,000 sweetpotato farmers in the coming year.

CIP is also partnering with the National Potato Council of Kenya (NPCK) to upgrade an existing digital platform – Viazi Soko – that provides advisory and extension service outreach for potato farmers.

Viazi Soko was launched in 2017 to create a virtual hub for farmers to access quality planting materials, markets and other advisory services, such as weather forecasts. The upgrade will allow farmers to access the platform on three protocols (USSD, web-based, and Android).

Today, the platform has 100,000 registered users, 80% of whom are potato farmers in Kenya..

In the mean time, Northwest cherry supplies look to be up this season.

The 2021 Northwest crop estimate puts cherries at 23.7 million boxes, up 3 million from last year and looking more like the 2019 crop.

“June will be a slow start but overall, the Northwest will ship more than last June”, says Catherine Gipe-Stewart of Superfresh Growers based in Yakima, WA.

“July will be the glut of both the Northwest and our crop. It will be strong all the way through with plenty to support July 4th promotions.”

Harvest will likely begin June 1–a few days later than last year’s May 28th start but similar to historic starts for the crop.

”Superfresh Growers harvest will start the first week of June, slow and steady. We will have good momentum by late June. July will be heavy with plenty of promotable volume”, says Gipe-Stewart.

Harvest should continue until late August when it finishes in its high-elevation orchards.

That slower start tracks back to weather experienced during the growing season when Gipe-Stewart says the crop did see some late frosts and windstorms.

”Some fruit may have been lost, but the remaining cherries will be exceptionally large and sweet”, she says.

”However, we expect the combined hits on a number of our early season orchards will result in a slower first few days of harvest as an industry. As the harvest moves into regions where the crops were not in such a critical stage, we expect to see daily shipment volumes climb swiftly.”

Competing with the Northwest region is largely British Columbia.

Getting ready for strong demand

As for demand, last season’s strong demand is expected to continue. Gipe-Stewart notes that in the pandemic, healthy, clean foods increased in popularity with consumers.

Cherries saw an absolute dollar gain of $239 million–up 86.5 percent for a total of $996 million (absolute dollar gain March 15-September 6, 2020 versus year ago).

”Last year we learned that consumers are willing to pay for the affordable luxury of cherries”, she says, noting that Nielsen data shows retail prices were up all season and overall dollars were up, despite less volume at the forefront of the season.

She notes that conventional dark sweet cherries were up 28 percent in dollars and up 6 percent in volume, with an average retail of $3.49 (up $0.61 more than last year). Conventional Rainier cherries were up 9 percent in dollars, despite being down -2 percent in volume. ”We expect similar trends this year”, Gipe-Stewart says.

This season, packaging has been updated for the Super fresh Organics line. The bright purple packaging is designed to catch the eye at grocery displays and more easily differentiate organic product on store shelves.

 

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