Opinion & Analysis

Agriculture sector woes need proactive solutions

I visited Uasin Gishu County last week at the invitation of StartUpGrind, an entrepreneurial hub based in Eldoret.

Uasin Gishu is part of the North Rift counties that are generally referred to as the bread basket of Kenya. It is here that most of the maize, the staple food of Kenya, is grown.

My presentation focused on precision agriculture, largely because maize production is increasingly coming under pressure from declining productivity, changing consumption patterns and lack of an innovative supply chain.

First, I acknowledged the fact that the application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in agriculture in many parts of the world is improving productivity and enabling innovative demand as well as supply side solutions.

I went on to note that the greatest problem facing farmers as well as the State is the maize glut occasioned by changing consumption patterns and cheap imports from neighbouring countries that threaten the livelihood of many people who depend on the crop for income.

Therefore, the notable decline in the amount allocated for purchasing strategic grain reserves (SGR) recent budget from Sh 2.7 billion in 2015/2016 to Sh1.6 billion in 2016/2017 is not a surprise.

Further, duty on wheat was lowered perhaps due to the fact that it is a substitute to maize and is increasingly becoming Kenya’s staple food.
The county therefore must brace itself to face the budget reflection on the shift in consumption of maize to wheat.

The shift was first noted in a 1995 study by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute.

Whilst maize consumption as well as SGR have declined, wheat consumption has in the past eight years doubled from 975 tonnes in 2007 to 1,950 tonnes in 2015.

With a little ingenuity, North Rift farmers could optimally produce and still be able to find markets for their outputs without depending on subsidies to profit from farming.

The reduction of duty, however, will come as a relief to mostly young adults who consider wheat as their staple food.

Since we import in excess of 1,500 tonnes of wheat, farmers should perhaps switch to growing wheat for income. The switch might be particularly timely if farmers use the new disease-resistant wheat varieties developed at the University of Eldoret.

Any attempt to change crops may take time since farmers too need maize for their own. It may be easier if new products were to be created out of maize.

In South America, for example, process innovation, that is, nixtamalisation, has enabled them to make in excess of 300 products out of maize.

This compares poorly to Kenya where we rely on very few maize products, with ugali largely dominating although this dish is becoming increasingly unpopular with young consumers.

With an expanded product offering, the country could utilise all of the locally produced maize and even absorb the so-called cheap imports from Uganda and Tanzania.

I also used the opportunity to explain the role of big data and improvement of county competitiveness. With the use of cheap GPS gadgets and some cheap sensors, the county could begin to utilise Internet of things (IoT) to deal with agricultural problems proactively.

It will be even possible to monitor the acreage of different crops and output per acre. This data will in turn enable the policy makers to begin to understand farmer needs and stop pushing such things as fertiliser without knowing if the farmers require it or not.

If such data is linked to universities to merge it with other data like poverty, we shall begin to deal with perennial problems that face the people at the grassroots level.

My explanation of big data took different tangents, including the fact that there are many things that aren’t understood because data is not analysed and visualised to benefit the people who need it most.

For example, we keep on suspecting that some fertilizers used by farmers have led to high incidences of cancer in the country.

When data is gathered and analysed, it will be possible to respond to many unknowns and possibly persuade some farmers to begin considering organic food production.

ICTs cut across all sectors and are key especially in agriculture where precision farming is enabling many farmers to monitor the crops with greater productivity.

ICTs also enable us to gather more data that when analysed, we can become more effective in dealing with many of the problems that face humanity.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.