It often said that difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions. This was evident at the Nairobi International Trade Fair whose theme is “Enhancing Technology in Agriculture and Industry for Food Security and National Growth.”
Yet beyond the usual vegetables with gigantic leaves and cows with price tags as big as their sizes, some exhibitors demonstrated that it is through innovation that Kenya will be able to feed itself.
Lack of resources and government support notwithstanding the innovators at the show ground have proven that Kenya is a hotbed of agricultural innovation which if given attention will provide home grown solutions to food insecurity problem.
While officially opening the show on Thursday President Uhuru Kenyatta reiterated how his Government has placed food security as its number one agenda.
“Food security remains a priority in Kenya’s development agenda and the national government will continue leading the way in addressing the major challenges facing the agriculture sector,” said the President.
“We have committed to focus and to ensure that by 2022, our nation is food secure. We must conquer hunger; we have to live true to what inspired our freedom fighters,” he said.
From the hundreds of exhibitors at the show ground, Smart Harvest has narrowed down to most outstanding.
Flow bee hive
Honey is sweet but harvesting it can be a dangerous affair not only to the farmer but also to the bees themselves. It is a messy process that involves wearing a special suit, smoking the bees and brushing them from hives in order to extract the honey.
What if you could do away with this dangerous process and get the honey from a tap connected to the hive? Yes you can courtesy of a flow hive designed by ‘The Hive ltd’ which ensures there is no mess and the bees are hardly disturbed.
“This is the latest technology in bee keeping as it enables farmers to harvest honey without opening it,” says Richard Chalo, an employee of The Hive.
“What the farmer needs to do is to open a tap and honey comes out. This is made possible by a wire gauze separation known as the ‘queen excluder’ which only allows the worker bees to access the upper compartment of the hive,” he explains.
This upper compartment has plastic frames known as a ‘flow frame’ which consists of partly pre-formed honeycomb cells. The bees complete the comb with their wax, fill the cells with honey and cap the cells as usual.
During harvesting, an operating tool is inserted in the top of the frame and turned. The cells then split vertically inside the comb forming channels, allowing the honey to flow down to a sealed trough at the base of the frame and out of the hive. During this operation, the bees are practically undisturbed on the comb surface.
When the honey has finished draining, the operating tool is inserted into another slot and turned again which resets the comb into the original position and allows the bees to chew the wax capping away and fill it with honey again.
Solar vegetable drier
With scenes of food rotting away in the farms and streets being a common scene whenever the harvesting period comes, the answer could lie in a machine that used energy from the sun to indirectly dry vegetables.
Stephen Okumu, a Building and Construction Student at the Kenya Technical Training Colleges says his invention would not only help farmers preserve their vegetables when they are in plenty but also maintain their nutrients in their original form.
Instead of drying vegetables directly in the sun, Okumu’s machine transforms sun rays into energy which powers a fan that drives cold air at high speed in an enclosing towards vegetables hence drying them in the process.
“The sun sucks out nutrients from vegetables because of the heat, that is why plants loose colour if they are uprooted and exposed to the sun,” he says.
“My design creates just enough air movement to dry food quickly,” he says.
As air passes through the vegetables, cool air is drawn in through a bottom vent while heated moisture-laden air flows out the exhaust at the top. Okumi says that the shorter drying time guaranteed by the solar drier gives microorganisms present in the vegetables little time to cause spoilage.
The plants should however be blanched before placing them in the drier. Blanching refers to passing steam through harvested vegetables and then placing them immediately in cold water. This reduces microbes in the plants which in turn increases their shelf life.
With arable land fast getting depleted, the future perhaps lies in the use if indoor greenhouses where plants will not require sunlight but will also grow in record time.
The automated indoor greenhouse designed by Jethrow Kimande, a Master of Science in Nuclear Science student at University of Nairobi has an ability of recording its internal conditions which enables the farmer to know whether to increase water, light intensity, soil moisture or temperature. All this is made possible by a controller which is linked to sensors and a laptop that shows on a graph the conditions inside the greenhouse in real time.
“Arable land is reducing every day while at the same time a lot of people are moving into towns,” says Kimande.
“We need to start thinking on how these people who have no land at all can grow their own food crops using the little space they have,” he explains.
The greenhouse is completely opaque which eliminates any light from the sun, a design which the student says enables the farmer to control the amount of light which the plants will receive thus enabling them to manufacture food on a continuous basis.
Plants require light in order to make their own food but Kimande says, “It is not about the colour but the intensity of the light.”
“Plants are sensitive to blue and red light. As so long as you have this frequently the plants will be able to produce food,” he explains.
The student says his greenhouse if rolled out on large scale will have the ability of being used for production of all the vegetables that are grown in convectional green houses.
Wick irrigation system
If at any point you have used a tin lamp in your life then you must know how simple its lighting mechanism is. An absorbent wick transports liquid fuel that is consumed by the flame to provide light. A similar system is used in firing a kerosene stove but now it can also be used to grow vegetables.
A wick irrigation system like the one we saw exhibited by the Nairobi county government can offer farming solutions to those who want to grow crops on their balconies in a city with lack of space and adequate water supply like Kenya’s capital.
In this system crops are planted in a container suspended on top of another one that contains water. However before planting the wick is buried in the soil, and the other end hangs into a pot, dish, or bucket of water.
“Water will flow up the wick and water the plant until the soil surrounding the plant is damp. Once the soil dries out, the wick will again soak up water,” explains Kaari Abidan, the county agricultural officer for Kasarani.
“The wick allows the plant to soak up water or nutrients at a slow place which balances the PH of the soil and prevents weeds from growing,” she says.
According to the Nairobi County Government, the system if adopted well by city dwellers will reduce budgets at house hold level since families will be able to grow crops in small spaces and by using very little water.
“All vegetables can be grown using this method,” says Abidan.
“The wick system can reduce the amount of water used for irrigation by up to 80 percent. The only problem is you can only use it for seasonal crops because after six months there will be too much mineral build up in the pot,” she says.
Fruit sorting robot
Though the robot is still at a prototype phase, the machine designed by Technical University of Mombasa
Mechanical Engineering student Anthony Gachuiha offers a glimpse in the future of mechanised farming that Kenya desperately needs.
With sensors that can identify colour and size, the robot can be used to sort harvested fruits and vegetables thus helping the farmer sort out produce in terms of grade. This robot which if developed will assist large farms sort out their produce faster so that they can get the best prices for them.
“All colours have different codes when programmed into a computer,” sayd Gachuiha.
“As the sensors on the robot sense anything passing through the conveyer belt, they actuate the arm which pick the object and drop it where other objects with the same specifications are,” he says.
The robot uses machine vision and motion planning algorithms to recognize and locate the ripe or row produce running on the conveyer belt. The image processing algorithms can detect damaged, diseased or unripe products.
The grasping hand can also be modified to pick different types of products which makes the robot available for use in different harvesting seasons. The only problem is getting support for the student to make his robot an actuality.
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