Virginia Tech® home

Mastering the learning curve: Youth play key role in smartphone app adoption

laserpulse youth

In May 2021, a group of students in Kenya assisted in distributing smartphones to producers, traders, and retailers of African indigenous vegetables (AIV).

The effort is a part of the USAID-funded Long-term Assistance and Services for Research (LASER) Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine (PULSE) project, implemented by Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED), Egerton University, and AgUnity

Once in Kakamega County, Kenya, the Egerton University team – led by co-principal investigator Joseph Mwangi and IT specialist Paul Kahenya – met up with field officers from the Australian start-up AgUnity. The company has developed a smartphone application that uses blockchain technology to record transactions and information about AIVs, track the vegetables throughout the supply chain, and provide transparency to consumers about the safety of their vegetables, with the ultimate goal to increase the demand and consumption of the nutritious vegetables. The app was now ready to be tested in the field for use. 

Actors along AIV value chains participate in the project with hopes that a more formal, organized value chain could help increase trustworthy information surrounding the vegetables. Betty, an AIV farmer, shared that the AgUnity app will help her improve her vegetable operation in a number of ways, from more effectively meeting demand, to record keeping, to being able to access credit with evidence of receipts recorded on the app. 

Despite overwhelming enthusiasm, the learning curve associated with adopting new technology, including both the phone and the way the app is used, is ever present. 

“For those of us who have been using a smartphone since their advent in the mid-2000s, it’s easy to take for granted the relatively short time it takes to learn how to use a new application,” said Jessica Agnew, CIRED’s assistant director of research, operations, and program management and co-Principal Investigator of the project. “But for many of the project’s stakeholders, there is a long list of new skills to learn, from learning how to charge the phone, turning it on and off, and navigating the home screen. It’s important that this learning time is taken, as comfortability with the tech is crucial to its long-term adoption.”

While the AgUnity app is co-designed with AIV value chain participants in Kenya, a key aspect of the project’s human-centered design approach, it still takes time to learn how to use any technology. In each transaction, for example, buyers and sellers scan one another’s phones. Though simple in practice, learning to scan a QR code is a new skill that actors must develop.

Enter youth. One of the main objectives of this project – which is named Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Improve Food Security Through African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya – is to investigate whether using digital technology in agriculture can attract youth. Egerton University and AgUnity field teams observed fairly early that, in fact, the AgUnity app can do just that. 

Edwin, for example, is a local trader of AIVs in his mid-twenties (USAID refers to youth as any person younger than 30 years of age). Since becoming a beneficiary of the project, Edwin has stepped into a leadership role, assisting his fellow AIV actors in learning how to use both the smartphone and the application. This new challenge, he noted, has been exciting and helpful in reigniting his interest in his work in a fresh way. 

Another youth attended one of the smartphone app trainings representing her mother-in-law. Having heard about the program earlier, she is among several participants slated to be added to the program in the coming months. This farmer, along with others in the surrounding area, belongs to a community-based organization called New Vision, which helps her save for a phone so that she can participate in the connected network of buyers and sellers. 

“As news of the project continues to spread,” Agnew added, “we expect more youth to be interested in participating in a variety of ways, even if it's not in primary production of the vegetables themselves. We also view students at universities like Egerton as key drivers of technological advancement in agriculture. They are the next generation of leaders and they are keen to create and innovate.”

The smartphones have been in the field for a short 6 weeks; however, there have been significant improvements in skills and abilities in using the app. Part of this success has been driven by the willingness of youth to support their fellow value chain actors in overcoming the learning curve. With a touch of a button, AIV value chain actors are closer to consuming and selling more and better quality nutritious vegetables.