Feature: Kenyan agro-experts extend services online to boost food output amid COVID-19 crisis

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NAIROBI, March 30 (Xinhua) -- Since the detection of the first coronavirus (Covid-19) case in Kenya in mid-March, agronomist Beatrice Macharia has visited about five farmers only as she seeks to adhere to social distancing and government advice that people stay at home.

However, while she has generally kept off farms, Macharia is serving hundreds of farmers on various online platforms.

She is among tens of crop and livestock specialists in the east African nation who have intensified online extension services to enable farmers produce food despite the raging crisis.

Ordinarily, most of the agronomists serve at least two farmers every day by visiting their farms for diagnosis of problems on crops and spraying of chemicals.

But with the advent of the disease, they have to adapt to the new mode of operation.

"I am working with farmers mainly through WhatsApp and Facebook where I am spending most of my time offering solutions," said Macharia on Monday.

"I am only visiting farms when it is absolutely necessary," she added.

Among the farmers she is serving are those growing maize and beans, tomatoes, onions, capsicums, courgettes and fruits following the onset of the long rainy season.

"This is the only way we can reach farmers as we try to restrict movement and enhance social distancing. Besides, events like field days and trainings have been cancelled," she said.

To enable easier diagnosis of problems, farmers are taking photos of affected crops and pests they find on farms and sharing to members of online communities.

Macharia belongs to four farmers' WhatsApp groups, and according to her, the number of producers on the platforms has doubled since the detection of coronavirus in the country.

"People have realized there is no other way of getting extension services faster other than through farmers' online communities. They have thus joined them," she said.

Agnes Mutie, a farmer asked in one of the WhatsApp groups on Monday: "Please advise, which herbicide can I spray on my farm and plant immediately before the rains disappear."

"There are several herbicides for land preparation but you need to give them time like 10 days and plant. The herbicide you use as pre-emergence depends with the crop," Bernard Korir, an agronomist responded.

To enhance service delivery, Macharia said she works with three agro shops scattered in Kajiado, south of Nairobi where she operates from, to enable farmers get drugs.

"The drugs are being delivered to farmers via courier services or through motorbike riders to reduce movement of farmers thus exposing themselves," she said, adding the mode of operation has boosted business for riders and agro shops, ensuring trade goes on despite threat of the disease.

The online communities have also enhanced peer-to-peer learning among farmers, with the producers assisting each other to solve challenges on the farm.

"I need help. I have a cow in its first calving. It's high-yielding but it has been not well. The body structure does not look so good compared to the rest. What could be the problem and the solution please?" farmer Sylvia Nyambura asked.

"For this, you need to engage a vet for farm visit. In every sub-county, there is a team of government officers. Please reach them before time runs out," Vincent Ogando advised.

Bernard Mwaso of Edell IT Solution, a software development start-up in Nairobi, said online services have come to the rescue of many sectors amid the outbreak of the disease, thus, the extension services sector should not be any different.

"Farmers and extension officers have no choice but to change their mode of operation. It is critical for the country because we must continue to produce food despite the crisis," he said.

According to him, it has been easier to adopt online extension services by farmers due to widespread smartphone use and cheaper internet. Enditem

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