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Leveraging systems change through digital tech for MSMEs in the Kenyan cotton industry

Leveraging sustainable trade and development through empowering smallholder farmers and MSMEs in the Kenyan cotton sector with the use of digital technology

The cotton sector in Kenya was in the doldrums due to market liberalisation structural reforms in the 1990s, which resulted in trust deficiencies in the sector. Moreover the import of mitumba floods the market, augmenting it. Thus, there are many struggles faced by Kenyan cotton farmers and MSMEs as they struggle to improve yields in terms of quality and quantity. The overarching problems are:

  1. Farmers lack of capacity and knowledge on agricultural and business which limits yields. (Meeme, 2019)

  2. Middlemen exert their power over farmers by offering poor working terms.

  3. Farmer groups disintegrated post market liberalisation; thus the sector is not organised or formalised.

  4. Youth want to become active in the cotton industry (land owning farmers, supporting services) but there is disharmony between them and elder farmers, consequently they struggle to access land to cultivate cotton.

  5. Insufficient market and trend knowledge - MSMEs lack the skills to manufacture higher quality products that meet customer needs. Currently many people rely on mitumba for their style needs as the garments they want are not produced in Kenya.

Furthermore, the research identified other problems in the cotton sector related to the high prices of labour and utilities, authenticity of inputs and inadequate investments into the sector.

The importance of the methodologies behind the technology was highlighted as critical in achieving sustainable development with digital tech. The most important aspects were to truly meet user needs through user centred design; that technology is a tool and not a solution; digital technology should be implemented in blended learning approaches with in-person training and through partnerships of different (Cornell University, 2020) stakeholders; and lastly, the long-term sustainable business model of the technology provider to secure long term sustainability of the intervention.

Based on the findings from literature review and interviews, the following four recommendations are provided:

  1. Promotion of farm groups to share knowledge (business and agricultural), formalise primary production and support in facilitating the setup of transparency systems in the sector.

  2. Smartphone app to share knowledge amongst business oriented farmers and connect them online. It is an opportunity to bridge the gap between knowledge institutions and farmers through providing info on regenerative practises, permaculture, diversification strategies etc as well as better business practises.

  3. Dumbphone (Nokia 3310 type) weekly messages with key info on weather forecasts, local pest infestations, market prices and current farm practises farmers should be doing (fertilising, harvesting etc). This will mean that all farmers are equipped with knowledge on how to operate successfully and sustainably.

  4. Trend and market info for small manufacturers, helping them to upgrade their production to manufacture higher value products which meet customer requirements. When customers can buy Kenyan products which satisfy their style needs, they will be less reliant on mitumba, thus supporting the Kenyan economy.

By following these recommendations, knowledge on good agricultural and business practises will increase and farmers will be better connected with each other and to markets. Also foster trust as interconnection develops and sector fragmentation declines. Furthermore, by empowering MSMEs, predatory practises will reduce, remunerations throughout the chain will become more equitable, helping to make the value chain more democratic. All these elements support leveraging systems change and contribute to the Government of Kenya’s Big Four Agenda and also the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

If you would like to learn more about the research or read the full thesis, please contact Ella Peters at


Meeme, V., 2019. State should support tech advances for smallholder farmers. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2021].

Cornell University, n.d. [Online].

Cornell University, 2020. Kenya picks 1,000 farmers to grow GMO cotton. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2021].

Oduya, O., 2020. Bt Cotton Expected to Boost Production. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 2 June 2021].

FAO, 2012. Analysis of Kenyan Cotton. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2021].

ITC, 2013. Improving Africa's Cotton Value Chain, Geneva: The International Trade Centre.

Intracen, 2020. Textile Value Chain in Kenya. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22 February 2021].

Kenya Cotton Growers Association, 2010. KCGA. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 10 April 2021].

Kos, D., 2019. Digital technologies, hyper-transparency and smallholder farmer inclusion in global value chains. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2021].

McKinsey and Co, 2020. The State of Fashion 2020. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 January 2021].

Mordor Intelligence, 2020. African Textile Industry. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 January 2021].

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