Sustainable agriculture: How tech can help tackle hunger
By Nixon Gecheo
| March 28th 2018
Agriculture is the major contributor to Kenya’s economic performance. It is the leading economic sector, accounting directly for more than 25 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The sector also accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya’s total exports as well as providing more than 18 per cent of formal employment.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has committed that his administration will pay special attention to four key sectors that includes food security that will drive Kenya’s economic agenda during his second term in office. Growth of the national economy is therefore highly correlated to growth and development in agriculture.
The agricultural sector faces a number of challenges that include firstly: climate change- the changing and unpredictable rain patterns have greatly affected agricultural producers’ ability to plan their activities. Secondly, extension services- there is limited access to extension services, a situation that has hindered most farmers from keeping pace with changing production knowledge and with technological advances resulting to dwindling productivity.
Thirdly; the use of outdated technology – the use of modern science and technology in agricultural production is still limited. Fourthly: Inadequate research–extension–farmer linkages that facilitates demand-driven research and increased use of improved technologies continue to constrain efforts that promote agricultural productivity as farmers continue to use outdated and ineffective technologies. Fifthly is the use of inputs- most farmers lack information on the right type of farm inputs to use or the appropriate time of application of the same.
Most farmers don’t use inputs such as seed, pesticides, fertilizer, drugs and vaccines, which greatly reduces the yield that the farmers get. Lastly, is the soil nutrient deterioration- the rising population density has contributed to the subdivision of land to uneconomically small units. In addition, the reduction of fallow periods and continuous cultivation have led to rapid depletion of soil nutrients, declining yields and environmental degradation.
There is no shortage of data on agriculture in Kenya, as many organizations both public and private have been carrying out research in the field of agriculture. The challenge has been that we lack contextualized data, which can be helpful to the farmers, and the sector in general, for decision-making. Furthermore, there’s an enormous amount of data coming out of the fields, if we can make tools for farmers to transform the data to information whose knowledge-based value can result to higher yields.
Such data needs to be customised to useful advice and sent directly to farmers instructing them, for example, on the optimum amount of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and other applications, given the agronomic and livestock data that may be held by the centralized repository on their farmers and geological locations. In an era of Big Data (BD), one of the most promising routes to bootstrap innovation in agriculture is by using Open Data to support the sharing of data and associated information.
Making Big Data Work for Kenya’s Agriculture
Big data is much more a capability than a single entity. It is the capability to extract information and generate insights where previously it was economically, if not technically, impossible to do so. Big data has three key dimensions – volume, velocity, and variety.
Secondly, the introduction of low-cost, novel-sensing technologies (e.g. drones, satellites, cell phones) is a critical driver through which data (never before available because of the high cost of data capture) now can be gathered. Thirdly is the ability to turn information into insights; fourth is the ability to connect and empower people. Fifthl; big data enables evidence-based decision-making and finally; big data is helpful in the development of integrated solutions to complex problems.
Various agricultural value chain actors exist in Kenya, capturing enormous volumes of data that rarely gets integrated into the decision-making chain. Lack of the right infrastructure to centralise data to a central location that can result to BD has not been possible, with the broadband internet spreading throughout the country and more so buoyed by the devolution of government, this is no more a challenge.
Some of the institutions that include Academia, ILRI, KALRO, ICRISAT, ICRAF, AGRA have been involved in agricultural research, these organizations are potential users of big data infrastructure, which can provide the already available agricultural data that only need centralised storage and processing facilities for continuous analytics that will call for the necessary collating, interpreting, and understanding.
This will help to generate decision support tools for analysis and dissemination of data that will help agricultural value chain actors to plan and monitor production and manage value addition.
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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