Use of technology and simplified data on weather and management of production processes are the key to sustainable food security in Kenya. Traditional production approaches are unable to ensure food production in a way that will deal with changing climatic conditions that majority farmers in Kenya seem challenged to deal with. Farmers are struggling with stabilizing their production, rainy seasons have drastically changed, panic has gripped many of them, who have had to replant their farms since the beginning of the year with no guarantee that things will improve. We are facing a serious food shortage in the country, obviously the situation made worse with the COVID-19 pandemic and related negative implications on the health of Kenyans. When are we going to use such technologies such as Artificial Intelligence in our agricultural production for example?
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 doesn’t change. Already, climate change has caused irreparable damage to many sectors in the country.
Data on weather that is localized like what the Kenya Meteorological Department is doing currently but which is massively and strategically disseminated to the locals through both national and county government local administration and local radio stations is very important in enabling farmers anticipate and adequately prepare according to prevailing and not traditional weather patterns. A number of farmers face challenges of poor planning or re-starting the process since the start of the year are those that largely depend on existing and traditional weather characteristics, which unfortunately is no longer tenable. They wasted themselves and resources, and are very frustrated. Until now, many parts of the country that traditionally used to get rain during the beginning of the year are still experiencing sporadic wet conditions or none at all, which has raised anxiety among the farmers.
Use of technology especially within a strengthened field extension services framework, now that agriculture is a devolved function will help in dealing with the issue of fake fertilizers and seeds and advisory services to the farmers. Kenya Seed Company has been struggling with issues of fake seeds in the market, which has led to not only poor yields for farmers, thus a threat to healthy food security, but allowed famers to waste a lot of resources in the production circle with very little results. The supervision of outlets selling farm inputs across the country has been very weak and compromised, and we hoped devolving agricultural and livestock services, will see counties strengthening such services, but little is happening.
While the Kenya Seed Company and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), have the capacity, recent frequent under funding have seen them unable to supply good quality certified seeds and fertilizers to the farmers, which has seen farmers exposed to fake products. While the Government tried through the Revised Seeds and Variety Evaluation and Release Regulations to allow for greater private sector involvement in seed certification, quality has still remained a challenge.
Even the framework for public-private framework for controlled seed self-certification and above all, new requirements that all seed packets must now be labelled, with particular benefits for smallholder farmers that was developed by the Government has not really worked especially at the grassroots.
Such tested services that had resulted in improved agricultural productivity and by extension food security such as E-payment vouchers, technology applications that allow testing of soils and mobile phone verification systems for certified seeds and fertilizers are yet to be fully embraced in Kenya, which is bad for the farmers.
A recent study 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 noted 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.
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.
The author is the Deputy CEO at the Media Council of Kenya (MCK).