5 August 2018

Kenya: Why Technology Will Disrupt and Transform Our Agriculture

Photo: Robert Kibet
Farmer working on his maize farm in Kenya (file photo).

Agriculture is critical to some of Africa's biggest development goals. The sector is an engine of job creation. Farming alone currently accounts for about 60 percent of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa, while the share of jobs across food system is potentially much higher.

At the same time, Africa's agriculture sector is facing mounting challenges.

Africa's population, which is projected to rise by 1.3 billion by 2050, will further strain her food system. This will require a 70 per cent increase in food production. Besides increasing productivity, such efforts require to be augmented by ensuring minimal food losses and efficient supply chain management.

ICT SOLUTIONS

The food security challenge will only grow as climate change intensifies, threatening crop and livestock production. If no adaptation occurs, production of maize -Africa's main staple crop - could decline by up to 40 percent by 2050.

Expanding the land that is under cultivation has boosted African agricultural production in the past, but is has come at an environmental cost. Moving forward, the focus must be on intensifying production on agricultural land sustainably without harming the environment.

Technology in agriculture is expected to play a major role in agricultural growth in the developing world as many ICT solutions have proven affordable to small holder and resource poor farmers that make up about 80 per cent of the farming community in the region.

INTERNET OF THINGS

So clearly business-as-usual farming is not the right way forward.

Whether it is satellites that provide accurate climate data, Internet of Things - computer devices interconnection via the internet enabling them to send and receive data, devices like smartphones, or cutting-edge innovations like blockchain (a decentralised, distributed ledger used to record transactions across many computers) digital technology could be the game-changer in boosting agricultural productivity and building resilience in a sustainable way.

Various development partners and research institutions are incorporating precision technology into their agriculture projects around the world. For example, World Bank is exploring internet-enabled smart irrigation devices that combine automated soil water sensors and cloud-based data analytics which will boost crop yields while cutting water use.

DIGITAL GREEN

In Kenya, there is a pilot project on the use of big data from remote sensing and GIS-enabled technologies to support the implementation of agro-weather analytics that enable accurate weather monitoring and dissemination of climate information to smallholder farmers.

This data enables smallholder farmers to know how and when to apply inputs for optimal results. The pilot will be rolled out in October under the World Bank-funded Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project.

All over the Africa, startups and other institutions are leveraging digital technology in transformative ways.

In Nigeria and Kenya, Hello Tractor is reversing the trend of low mechanisation by allowing farmers to hire affordable tractors to work their land, using their mobile phones. Solar refrigerators are helping dairy farmers in Kenya cool their milk products and reduce spoilage. About1.2 million farmers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi and Niger are learning best farming practices through engaging videos from Digital Green - a low cost way to deliver agriculture extension.

FOOD SAFETY

There is more in the horizon. The much-hyped block chain technology could expand rural finance by making financial transactions more accessible and less expensive and create more transparent and efficient system that allows farmers and others throughout the value chain to manage their supply chain more efficiently.

The technology can be applied directly to the grain trade and also expanded into other agricultural commodities. This allows for identification and removal of bad actors and poor processes and ensures ideal conditions from farm to market, and we can pinpoint source quickly in the event of a food safety outbreak.

FARM TO FORK

Blockchain technology can also be used to open new markets to farmers. The premise here is that if we can create trust and accountability among market players, there is reduced need to evaluate each person individually on their trustworthiness and ability to execute.

Throughout Africa, technology-led transformation of agriculture sector is already underway, from farm to fork. As technology improves and becomes more widely available, disruption in agriculture promises to accelerate. East African counties - notably Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda - are among those leading the way. Mobile phone penetration across the East Africa has been unparalleled.

The time is right for East Africa to leverage this mobile platform to harness its digital innovations to enable countries to achieve their agricultural potential through efficient use of resources (soil and water) to increase productivity and attain inclusive growth.

Mr Gecheo worked as an ICT and Media Advisor to the Cabinet Secretary of Agriculture and is a Member of the Universal Service Advisory Council of the Communication Authority

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