Virginia Tech researchers are using blockchain to help farmers in western Kenya access the information they need to consume more and better-quality nutritious vegetables.
African indigenous vegetables are valuable sources of micronutrients in Kenya. Their consumption, however, is low, which also contributes to food and nutrition insecurity.
Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development has partnered with Egerton University in Kenya and the Australian startup AgUnity to adapt a blockchain-based smartphone app that will help diminish barriers to consumption of nutritious vegetables.
The app, known as AgUnity’s Version 3 App or V.3 App, tracks African indigenous vegetables from the producer to the end consumer. Information about how these vegetables are grown, transported to the market, or processed rarely makes it to the final buyer, which impedes sales. Availability, knowledge of growing practices and vegetable safety, and transparency in transactions also contribute to their limited profitability and demand.
The V.3 App is free to its users. Farmers, traders, and retailers can use it to confirm prices and quantities of indigenous vegetables, obtain quality assurance and knowledge on whether chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been applied, and track the movement of the vegetables between transactions. They can also use the platform to market their produce and learn what vegetable varieties are in demand.
The app ensures that all transactions between users are permanently and securely recorded on a dedicated, unchangeable blockchain ledger. Other services, such as training, record-keeping, and a marketplace, are also offered.
In late May 2021, CIRED and its collaborators deployed smartphones equipped with the app to farmers and others who helped inform its design.
“We expect that by the end of this project, producers, traders, and retailers will see higher profits from the sale of nutritious indigenous vegetables,” said Jessica Agnew, assistant director of research, operations, and program management at CIRED and one of the project leads. “The increased availability, quality, and competitive prices of the vegetables will result in consumers purchasing and eating the vegetables more often. We expect that increased information about the safety of the vegetables will also encourage consumers to eat vegetables in high enough quantities to support nutrition.”
This project, Agnew said, is a first step to understanding how blockchain technology can solve major food security constraints among many actors, especially those vulnerable to malnutrition, like small-scale farmers and low-income households.
With the population in sub-Saharan Africa expected to grow by 2 billion by 2050, large-scale efforts are needed to improve nutrition through the consumption of healthy foods. An initial project survey revealed that improving food safety is a major factor to reaching that goal. Consumer hesitance to purchase vegetables grown with heavy amounts of chemical pesticides or washed in contaminated water prompted the project to include a mechanism in the V.3 App that will track if pesticides are being applied. This information will then become available to consumers to inform decision-making at the market.
“Since the start of this work, we have learned a lot about the pain points of actors along the indigenous vegetable supply chain and what needs to accompany the deployment of AgUnity’s app,” said Ralph Hall, associate director and associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and one of the project leads. “These lessons will help us improve the uptake of the app and the value it brings to all participants. Looking ahead, we hope to explore how the information stored on the app can inform consumers about the quality of the vegetables and how they can be cooked in a way that best retains their nutrition.”
In Kenya, African indigenous vegetables are traditionally produced and marketed by women. To ensure that women maintain this position, 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.
After obtaining the smartphones, Kenyan farmers were trained on how to use the app and how to grow indigenous vegetables. Betty, for example, is a small-scale farmer from Kakamega in western Kenya who learned how to use the app to connect buyers with her products.
“The training has been helpful to me as a farmer,” she said. “I will no longer use inorganic fertilizer that I previously used. With the phone app, I will be confirming with retailers and traders if they need vegetables and how much before going to the farm to pluck, unlike previously when I would just do it blindly and not sell them, leading to losses. Also, 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.”
The project is now evaluating the app’s effectiveness in the field. Egerton faculty and students are also being trained on blockchain technology and coding, and in September, will participate in a “hackathon” event where teams develop apps to address constraints in the vegetable supply chain.
CIRED is part of Outreach and International Affairs. This project is funded by the Long-term Assistance and Services for Research Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine, or LASER PULSE.
This publication was made possible through support provided by the Center for Development Research, U.S. Global Development Lab (Lab), U.S. Agency for International Development, 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 the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Written by Sara Hendery