Virginia Tech researchers are using blockchain to help farmers in western Kenya access the information they need to consume more, higher quality, nutritious vegetables.

Native African vegetables are valuable sources of micronutrients in Kenya. However, their consumption is low, which also contributes to food insecurity.

Virginia Techs Center for international research, education and development has a partnership with Egerton University in Kenya and the Australian startup AgUnity Adapt a blockchain-based smartphone app that will help break down barriers to eating nutritious vegetables.

The app, known as the Version 3 App or V.3 App from AgUnity, tracks African native vegetables from the producer to the end consumer. Information about how this vegetable is grown, marketed or processed rarely reaches the end buyer, which hinders 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 for its users. Farmers, traders and retailers can use it to confirm prices and quantities of local vegetables, get quality assurance and knowledge of whether chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been used, and track the movement of vegetables between transactions. They can also use the platform to market their products and find out which vegetables are in demand.

The app ensures that all transactions between users are permanently and securely recorded in a dedicated, immutable blockchain ledger. Other services such as training, record keeping and a marketplace are also offered.

At the end of May 2021, CIRED and its employees provided smartphones equipped with the app for farmers and others who had contributed to the development.

“We expect producers, distributors and retailers to see higher profits from selling nutritious local vegetables by the end of this project,” said Jessica Agnew, associate director of research, operations and program management at CIRED and one of the project leaders. “The increased availability, quality and competitive prices of the vegetables will result in consumers buying and eating the vegetables more frequently. We anticipate that more information about the safety of vegetables will also encourage consumers to eat vegetables in sufficient quantities to support the diet. “

This project, Agnew said, is a first step in understanding how blockchain technology can solve major food security constraints for many actors, especially those prone to malnutrition such as smallholders and low-income households.

With the population in sub-Saharan Africa projected to grow by 2 billion by 2050, Efforts are required to improve diet through consumption of healthy foods. An initial project survey found that improving food safety is a key factor in achieving this goal. Consumers’ reluctance to buy vegetables grown with large amounts of chemical pesticides or washed in contaminated water prompted the project to include a mechanism in the V.3 app that tracks whether pesticides are used. This information is then made available to consumers to help them make decisions in the market.

“Since the beginning of this work, we have learned a lot about the vulnerabilities of actors along the domestic vegetable supply chain and what needs to accompany the deployment of the AgUnity app,” said Ralph Hall, Associate Director and Associate Professor at School of Public and International Affairs and one of the project leaders. “These lessons will help us improve the app’s adoption and the value it brings to all participants. Looking ahead, we hope to learn more about how the information stored in the app informs consumers about the quality of the vegetable and how it can be cooked in such a way that its nutrients are best preserved. “

In Kenya, native African vegetables are traditionally produced and marketed by women. To ensure that women keep this position, CIRED’s Women and Gender in International Development The team assesses the project’s impact on and benefits for women. The team will also evaluate how digital technologies in general may or may not improve women’s participation in vegetable production and whether they could potentially attract more young people to agriculture.

After receiving the smartphones, Kenyan farmers were trained in how to use the app and how to grow local vegetables. Betty, for example, is a small farmer from Kakamega in western Kenya who has learned how to use the app to connect shoppers with their products.

“The training helped me as a farmer,” she says. “I will no longer use the inorganic fertilizer that I used before. With the phone app I will clarify with retailers and dealers whether and how much vegetables are needed before I go to the farm to harvest, unlike before when I just did it blindly and did not sell it, which led to losses . Also, the app will help me keep records and track payments with my customers, unlike in the past when I could sell on credit and forget about it. “

The project is now evaluating the effectiveness of the app in the field. Egerton faculty and students will also receive training in blockchain technology and coding, and will attend a “hackathon” event in September where teams will develop apps to address constraints in the vegetable supply chain.

CIRED is part of Public Relations and International Affairs. This project is funded by the Long-term support and services for research partners for university-run solutions engine, or LASER PULSE.

This publication was made possible by the support of the Center for Development Research, the US Global Development Lab (Lab), the US Agency for International Development, through the LASER PULSE program under the terms of Collaboration Agreement No. 7200AA18CA00009. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States International Development Agency.

Written by Sara Hendery