Technology critical in improving food production

Technology-driven interventions are the key to food security in Kenya as we continue struggles with ravages of natural emergencies and man-made calamities wrought by unscrupulous business people.

E-payment vouchers, technology applications that allow testing of soils and mobile phone verification systems for certified seeds and fertilizers seem to be unlocking the potential in the sector. The raging floods, prolonged rainfall currently pounding the country coupled with counterfeit seeds stand in the country’s efforts to feed the nation. Its almost certain that the country will fall short of enough food reserves next year given the destruction of property, including agricultural produce and livestock if the rainfall pattern does not change. Already, climate change has caused irreparable damage to many sectors in the country.

The adverse climate challenges to food security in Kenya that fell into the earlier bug problems farmers had pointed out severally with government including fake fertilizers and seeds, outdated regulatory framework, uncompetitive market system that allowed public agencies to dominate in distribution of fertilisers and insensitive sector regulation that excluded private sector involvement.

A study released in August 2019 by the Kenya Market Trust (KMT) entitled Transforming Kenya’s Agricultural Inputs Sector established that while agriculture employs nearly 40% of the population, it has not been performing to its potential, with limited diversification away from staple crops, such as maize, and average yields remaining below those of comparable countries.

Kenyan farmers use relatively low levels of inputs, such as fertiliser. This lowers productivity and therefore, farmers’ returns and their ability to reinvest in their crops. The study notes that while agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy, it has not been performing to its potential, with limited diversification away from staple crops, such as maize, and average yields remaining below those of comparable countries. Kenyan farmers use relatively low levels of inputs, such as fertiliser. This lowers productivity and therefore, farmers’ returns and their ability to reinvest in their crops.

Several interventions towards increasing productivity in the agricultural sector have faced challenges especially the issue of over-involvement of the Government in the seeds and fertilizer certification, management and distribution, where corruption has been a major pullback factor. At some stage, the government contracted Safaricom to run an e-voucher scheme that allowed farmers to purchase subsidised fertiliser directly from dealers and later authorized county governments to distribute fertilisers with little success. The presence of government in larger parts of the process discouraged the private sector from investing in the sector.

Subsidies and counterfeits instead chocked the sector. Kenya Seed Company and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), heavily under-resourced have been unable to supply good quality certified seeds and fertilizers in time thus affecting production. Revised Seeds and Variety Evaluation and Release Regulations were developed that opened up space for greater private sector involvement in seed certification, developed a new framework for public-private framework for controlled seed self-certification and above all, new requirements that all seed packets must now be labeled, with particular benefits for small scale farmers.

KMT then started a pilot intervention involving addressing both demand and supply-side issues in the inputs market, reorienting the behaviour of all actors along the chain to promote more long-term customer-oriented retail practices. In turn, this is expected to influence the purchasing patterns of farmers, increasing demand for quality inputs and attracting other players into the market over time.

The KMT model has seen them work to promote the public and private sector to reduce the prevalence of counterfeit seeds and increase efficiency in the seed certification process. This strategy has worked at improving the regulatory environment in the seed industry so that the private sector could play a greater role in streamlining the supply and distribution of certified seeds.

Farmers have been empowered to understand the nutrient mix in their soil thus need to test the soils before planting suitable seeds, seek relevant seeds which can been verified through sending a free message to a toll number to confirm the batch serial numbers, and its impact on productivity levels is a major determinant of whether they will buy inputs and whether they will buy the right inputs. However, soil testing is not a widespread practice in Kenya. This involved exploring different funding models to make the service both affordable and enticing to the average smallholder.

The World Bank in its various studies has made a raft of suggestions on how to deal with challenges in the agricultural sector. First, it’s important to create a digital ecosystem for extension, to give more farmers greater access to learning that can improve their farming.

Secondly, it is vital to support more transparency in market prices. Advisories and apps that provide access to price information will allow farmers to get prices on their own without a middleman, foster more competition, and put more revenues in farmers’ pockets. Third, precision agriculture is a game-changer and more effort should be put into making these technologies more accessible and affordable. Drones, sensors and other tools can make a difference in farmer productivity and should be in the hands of more farmers. Finally, there should be a greater focus on introducing entrepreneurial approaches into Africa’s agriculture higher education system.

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