Experts root for mapping technology to boost food production

Analysts say farmers have failed to embrace new technologies. One such technology that agriculturalists are rooting for is the geographic information system (GIS) mapping.
Analysts say farmers have failed to embrace new technologies. One such technology that agriculturalists are rooting for is the geographic information system (GIS) mapping.  

As Raphael Orwa packs his tomatoes for sale in Kisumu, he is expecting at least Sh200,000 this season.

His neighbours are also preparing other fresh produce like vegetables and fruits following a bumper harvest despite the dry season.
The fresh produce growers from Mbita, Homa Bay County counts their gains, thanks to irrigation farming and adoption of modern technologies.

For Mr Orwa, he says irrigating his farm with water from Lake Victoria has turned his three-acres land under tomato into a money spinner.

“An acre under tomatoes gives me about Sh80,000,” he said. “We usually have three plantings each year and what we get from the farm is enough to sustain our families and save some bit of it,” he says.

Mr Orwa is just one of thousands of small-scale farmers in Kenya who depend on their small plots of land to generate a sizable amount of income.

For many small-scale farmers, however, the story is not so good.

Most use old farming practices that have contributed to low yields, methods agriculturalists say are to blame for reduced food production and slow growth of the sector that is among Kenya’s economic drivers.

Analysts say farmers have failed to embrace new technologies. One such technology that agriculturalists are rooting for is the geographic information system (GIS) mapping.

“GIS mapping has been used before by farmers, but mostly on a large-scale and its application in Kenya has been very low”, says Andrew Adwera, a research fellow with the African Center for Technology Studies (ACTS), in Gigiri.

GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, and present all types of geographically referenced data.

In its simplest sense, GIS mapping refers to the use of global positioning technology to create reference points according to unique identifying characteristics.

When applied in Agriculture, GIS mapping is used to map out agricultural land in accordance to specific characteristics like soil texture, weather patterns, and prevalence of pests etc.

This in turn provides farmers with crucial data that can greatly improve their yield.

“GIS is basically a technological tool that is used to facilitate decision making,” says Mr Adwera.

“For example by mapping a particular geographic unit, we are able to identify what kind of soil exists in that area”.

“Using this data we can be able to determine the appropriate crops that can be grown in a particular region because different crops need different soil types to grow, ” he says.

An example of GIS mapping done in Kenya is the Map Kibera initiative carried out by youth in Kibera slums in 2009. Armed with portable GPS systems, the youth created a map which indicated crucial points in the vast slum like health centers, schools, trouble spots etc.

This is the technology that agriculturalist see will lift Kenya’s food production among small-scale farmers.

Kenya’s agricultural sector is mainly comprised of small-scale farmers. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, production is carried out on farms averaging 0.2–3 hactares, mostly on a commercial basis.

This small-scale production accounts for 75 per cent of the total agricultural output and 70 per cent of marketed agricultural produce. Small-scale farmers produce over 70 per cent of maize, 65 per cent of coffee, 50 per cent of tea, 80 per cent of milk, 85 per cent of fish, and 70 per cent of beef and related products.

The adoption of new technology has, however, been the greatest impediment to development for the sector. A relatively low portion of the population of small scale farmers have embraced improved inputs such as hybrid seed, concentrate feeds, fertiliser, safe use of pesticides and machinery.

Organisations like the African Center for Technological Studies and the Young Professionals’ Platform on Agricultural Research for Development (YPARD) are seeking ways to train farmers especially the youth in Nairobi on GIS mapping.

The move is aimed at increasing number of farmers in Kenya as the youth have shunned farming in search of white-collar jobs, a trend threatening the country’ food security.

“We found out that if we train young people on how to incorporate GIS mapping in agriculture, it will make them more receptive to agriculture as a way of life and a means of creating wealth”, said Mr Adwera.

“In addition to this, using the youth as change agents for technology-driven agriculture solves the two pronged problem of promoting the use of modern technology in agriculture and providing employment opportunities for the youth,” he says.

During a five-day pilot training conducted last month, the participants were trained on how to use the GPS equipment to collect data, download it into a computer and present the data in a way that will be able to help farmers make informed decisions.

The training programme is supposed to help the participants launch their own startups as GIS mapping consultants.

Shardack Kirui is a GIS specialist working with Acts and was one of the trainers at the workshop.

“GIS is a simple technology, but its benefits to agriculture are enormous”, he said.

“The resources required are very accessible because the most important equipment you require is a portable GPS data collection kit which costs between Sh15, 000 to Sh60,000 depending on the model,” Mr Kirui says.

The software used is also very basic because what we are using here is Internet-based software which is open source. Java Open Street is free and available for download by anyone and it is easy to use once one has been taken through the necessary training, he said.

“Using this equipment we can be able to go out to the ground and map out various geographic locations. Imagine if there was a database that has the characteristics of a particular land type.

What kind of soil exists there, which crops can grow in that particular soil, the pests that are prone in that area and what fertiliser and manure is appropriate. GIS mapping can make this possible and farmers, extension officers and policy makers will all have their work considerably simplified,” Mr Kirui said.

The use of GIS is not only applicable to the field work alone. Information about a population’s food demand and supply can easily be determined. For example, farmers can be provided with location points where there is a scarcity in tomatoes or where there is a glut in cabbages and the nearest market centers in that location.

“Such information if properly utilised could totally transform the regional economy of counties and improve the food security situation in the country”.

There is a drawback however and like any other new innovation, the greatest challenge to GIS’ adoption is awareness.
“The greatest obstacle to the adoption of GIS mapping in Kenya is that most people do not know much about it”, says Mr. Kirui.