App-solutely Plowing Through: Debunking the Digital Farming Myth and its Plot Against Farmer Sovereignty


As digital agricultural platforms like Digifarm and Azure Farmbeats expand across Africa, there’s a growing need to examine the broader implications. These platforms, while promising increased yields and efficiency, may also further entrench corporate interests in agriculture, raising questions about the true beneficiaries of this digital revolution. 

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Digital Greed

In a promotional video created by Safaricom, a group of farmers sit listening attentively to a representative of Digifarm, an agricultural technology platform. All the farmers wear identical Digifarm caps on their heads. Later in the video, Geoffrey Kimathi, a farmer who uses Digifarm’s services, explains how Digifarm has enabled him to have access to loans and fertilizers that he was not able to acquire before. His revenues have improved so much, he explains, that he is now able to send his children to a private school. Digifarm’s promotional video ends with Kimathi smiling into the camera, a veritable example of how Digifarm’s app has transformed the formerly miserable lives of poor smallholder farmers.

Digifarm is a service of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunications provider. To access Digifarm, a farmer downloads the app from GooglePlay with his or her personal information. By entering into an agreement with the company, the farmer can access loans in order to purchase inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, certified seeds, and “training on best farming practices”. In return, the farmer sells his or her produce to Digifarm at what Digifarm calls “competitive market prices”. As part of the Digifarm package, the farmer also has access to Arifu, a chatbot service that offers farming advice. Digifarm is one among a whole range of digital agricultural platforms that have sprung up in Kenya and other African countries. Another is the digital farming platform Azure

Farmbeats created by Microsoft (soon to change to Azure Data Manager for Agriculture). Azure Farmbeats collects data on farmers’ soil, water, and crops, and in turn offers recommendations and farm health advisories. Like Digifarm, Azure Farmbeats also has a chatbot service called Kuzabot, developed in 2020 under a partnership with the Bill Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Other tech platforms include iprocure, Digicow which offers digital vet and AI services, and HelloTractor – an app described as the “uber for tractors”.

These new agricultural technology platforms are part of a growing trend in the digitalization of agriculture. This trend is based on a narrative, pushed by the United Nations and multilateral institutions like the World Bank, that digital technologies can improve the food system by providing essential information to farmers, enabling them to increase their yields and profit, and doing so in a way that is environmentally sustainable. The greatest beneficiaries, the tech platforms claim, are the farmers themselves, as evidenced by the smiling Geoffrey Kimathi after encountering the range of lifechanging services from Digifarm. But what this story obscures, and what Digifarm and Microsoft do not reveal in their promotional materials, is the bigger picture of why digital agricultural platforms are proliferating on the continent, who is behind this new trend, and what digitalization means for smallholder farmers.

Big Ag marries Big Tech:

A Dangerous Merger Over the last ten years, the industrial food system, the part of the food system that is controlled by corporations and produces food on a mass scale using pesticides, fertilizers and modified seeds, has come to be controlled by fewer and fewer companies. Today, only four companies control the entire industrial food system: Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, Syngenta Group/ChemChi¬na, and BASF. At first glance, this trend appears to be a problem limited to the global North, where a significant part of the food system is in the hands of large agribusiness companies. In the rest of the world, seventy per cent of food is still produced by small-scale producers. However, there are increasingly greater efforts to impose the same corporate food system that exists in the North all over the world. In Africa, such efforts are led by organizations like the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which aims to strengthen private sector interests in agriculture in Africa, and to transform smallholder farming into a “business”. One of AGRA’s principal partners is Bayer, the giant agribusiness company which in 2018 bought Monsanto, the largest producer of genetically modified seeds and of the toxic herbicide Roundup. AGRA also partners with the African Development Bank whose approach to agriculture is to “shift from a highly diversified, subsistence-oriented farming activity towards a more commercially-oriented agriculture with improved access to markets”. The attempt by agribusiness corporations and philanthropic donors such as the Gates Foundation to capture peasant food systems is nothing new - it has been going on for decades. What is relatively new is the merger between agribusiness and data companies.

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In 2014, Monsanto bought The Climate Corporation for US$930 million, a company that underwrites weather insurance for farmers using tools like machine learning. Its Chief Technology Officer, Robb Fraley, said that in the next years, Monsanto would likely become an “information technology company”. For Monsanto, data analytics represented the “next major breakthrough” for farming. They were not far off the mark. Today, the world’s largest tech companies, which control the flow of data, are closely integrating with agribusiness companies like Monsanto that supply agricultural products to farmers, including pesticides, tractors and drones. For instance, tech giant Microsoft has developed an app to collect information from farms, Apple has an Apple Watch to provide information to farmers about their crops, and Amazon now owns the American supermarket chain, Whole Foods. On the agribusiness side, Syngenta/Chemchina acquired the digital platform Cropwise, which offers digital solutions for agriculture, and Corteva owns Granular, a software development company whose stated aim is to help farmers to be more “profitable and efficient”.

These new mergers have proven to be immensely profitable for agribusiness and tech firms alike, through the extraction of one main resource: data. Data, referred to nowadays as the “new oil”, is a resource whose value increases the more of it is hoarded and aggregated.

It is data that digital agricultural platforms like Digifarm are after: data about seeds, soil, crops, fertilizers, and weather from farms. In turn, the farmers who provide this data constitute a ready-made market for agribusiness companies to sell their products to. Data platforms like Climate Fieldview, developed by Bayer (or BayerMonsanto), harvest farmers’ data by analyzing pictures of farmers’ fields and crops and then suggest which Bayer products and herbicides farmers can buy. Microsoft’s digital platform Azure Farmbeats and its chatbot Kuzabot provide farmers in Kenya with information via WhatsApp and SMS about which inputs to use and which companies to buy from, while Digifarm - and its app Arifu - has a relationship with the seed and pesticide company Syngenta: farmers’ use of the platform “creates a demand for Syngenta seeds”.

Having access to “certified” Syngenta seeds may sound good on the surface. But ask any farmer about their seed practices, and most likely they will mention how seeds have been saved and shared among farmers and peasants since time immemorial. But over the last decades, increasingly larger portions of the seed market have come under the control of companies like Syngenta that develop genetically modified crops. Genetically modified seeds from the top agrochemical companies, Bayer, Corteva, Syngenta, and BASF, now account for nearly half of all global seed sales. This trend, in combination with the imposition of laws that privatize seeds and criminalize the sharing and exchange of seeds by smallholder farmers, ensures that agricultural corporations like Syngenta take over even more of the food system. Combine that with company-made inputs like pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and a system of industrial agriculture emerges to take the place of smallholder farming.

The benefits accruing to agribusiness companies are not limited to selling products to farmers. In the same way personal data from social media users on Facebook and other social media platforms is sold onto third parties, so data from farmers can be sold onward to insurance companies, pesticide dealers, large food companies, banks, and even NGOs. Meanwhile, the apps marketed to farmers are completely free to use. In the Netflix documentary about social media platforms, the Social Dilemma, Google’s former design ethicist, Tristan Harris explains, “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.” So while Digifarm markets itself to farmers as being free, the company neglects to mention that what it gets in return is the ability to extract, for free, the data that farmers provide when they sign up to the platform and to then own that data or sell it onward.

If one digs deeper, it turns out that these platforms are not even completely free to use. The research organization GRAIN explains how farmers that are “contracted” by Digifarm must buy inputs that are sold on credit at high interest rates, pay for crop insurance, sell their crops to the company at non-negotiable prices and then pay a fee to receive payments on the digital money app. Those who do not follow through with their payments face serious consequences: farmers who are late in repaying their loans must pay a penalty of 15% fee of the outstanding balance and have lower loan limits in the future, while farmers who default are blacklisted from Digifarm, which in turn means they cannot borrow from other lenders, such as banks, SACCOs and M-Shwari. GRAIN calls this system “contract farming on a mass scale”

The Farmers don’t Know Why They Farm

While the underlying corporate interests in the deployment of agricultural technologies remain hidden from farmers, making it difficult to identify the dangers of signing up to new data platforms, there is another reason why agricultural technology platforms have managed to proliferate and take hold of the farming sector – namely, the narratives that shape discourses and perspectives around both technology and agriculture.

One of the narratives that Digifarm perpetuates in its promotional materials is that farmers “do not know the reason they farm certain crops”. The farmers’ ignorance and lack of knowledge is illustrated visually by images of them looking upwards, listening to a Digifarm expert sharing information. To prove that Digifarm’s services are beneficial to farmers, Geoffrey Kimathi, a Digifarm farmer, testifies that all was not well before Digifarm appeared: he could not acquire pesticides, fertilizer or manure, and his yields were too low. After he signing up to Digifarm, he has access to affordable products, seeds that are “not fake” and his revenues have improved so much, he explains, that he is now able to send his children to a private school rather than the public school they were enrolled in before. He has become, in Digifarm’s vision, a “profitable” farmer.

In his book, A Feast of Flowers, anthropologist Chris Krupa describes how Marx understood the power of narrative as a “social force in its own right:” Krupa looks at how narratives - specifically in Ecuador’s flower plantation sector - work to “validate capitalist beneficence”. In Digifarm’s video, the narrative that farmers do not know what is good for them, or even why they plant the crops they do, validates the intervention of agricultural technology platforms like Digifarm in terms of capitalist beneficence: they come in to help alleviate the farmers’ suffering, transforming them from poor ignorant farmers into modern businessmen. This story is underpinned by assumptions that agriculture is a business and farmers are, or can be, entrepreneurs in the agribusiness system. In this narrative, farming should be about making as much money as possible, as efficiently as possible, while producing food at a lower cost. Left out of this story is the importance of farmers’ relationship to the land, their traditional practices and existing knowledge systems.

Working alongside this story is a larger, now widespread belief that technology is not only desirable, but necessary to “solve” the complex social problems that we face today. Critics characterize this narrative as a “technofix” narrative which overlooks structural causes of problems like food insecurity and access to land, in favour of quickfix technical solutions. Technofix language is widespread among digital agriculture platforms: Syngenta’s Cropwise mentions the importance of a crop’s “efficiency”, of “optimizing” a farm, and having “digital solutions” while Digifarm describes its aim as “leveraging technology” to resolve “key challenges” in order to make farmers wealthier. If the problems to which these platforms are providing solutions are low yields and precarity in farming as a result of climate change, there are much larger systems that need to be confronted, and far better longer term “solutions” like agroecology, which the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a network of African farmer organizations, has identified as a way forward for farmers and the planet.

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Digital farming has been falsely sold to farmers as a way for them to earn a better living and generate higher yields, while taking care of the environment. It’s a narrative that obscures a much more insidious process. By downloading and using these apps, farmers are buying into a model of farming that further entrenches corporate interests in agriculture, paving the way for more of the food system to be captured by the largest agribusiness corporations in the world.

This article was extracted from Cha kula Magazine, Issue 7. The issue is available for download here

Zahra Moloo is an investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker, and researcher from Kenya, based in Montreal, Canada.