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Columnists

Invest in technology to boost farm yields

My article last week was widely read around the globe and resulted in an increase to my social network of people with an interest in technology, climate change and food security.

American Melissa Cook from the African Sunrise Partners and the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa was the prime ‘connector’ to John Corbett, founder of aWhere, an agricultural technology company that leverages on big data to assist farmers improve on their productivity.

Kenya’s productivity is already compromised. In a report titled ‘‘Kenya: Corn update (2013),’’ the US Department of Agriculture predicted that Kenya’s maize production for the 2013/14 marketing year will be 2.8 million tonnes, compared to production in 2012/13 of 3.2 million tonnes and a five-year average of three million tons.

The decline in production is attributed to: “poor yields due to delayed and inadequate supply of subsidised fertilisers and certified seeds; below average rainfall; an outbreak of the maize lethal necrosis disease and infestation by the Striga parasitic weed; increased post-harvest losses linked to poor storage and drying facilities; and early sales of green maize.”

Technology and common sense will help deal with most of these issues.

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Cori Capik of Agfunder News says, in comparison to the rest of the world, American farmers have it made when it comes to access to agricultural technology.

And in light of the global food security crisis, that’s a problem that affects everyone. aWhere is trying to fix part of the disparity by providing farmers with weather, climate, agronomic recommendations, pest alerts, and more.

aWhere is a flexible platform as a service that works with organisations around the world to provide 192 hours or eight days of daily forecast information to rural farmers.

Our local technology startups like iCow, Mpharm and Mshamba can use the platform to improve on their efficiencies. aWhere processes data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and constituent groups such as Colorado State University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere and others.

It has the information and network for farmers outside of the US to make better-informed data-driven decisions, regardless of literacy, language, location or other social and/or economic factors.

Using satellite and remote sensing information along with extensive data processing, Capik says aWhere is able to provide any farmer around the world with accurate information down to a nine-kilometre by nine-kilometre plot.

In order to get this information to the average rural farmer, aWhere isn’t reinventing the network wheel. Rather, they are working with both governmental and private intermediaries and extension services, such as Esoko, to tap into already existing networks that farmers trust.

The extent to which productivity can be improved by using aWhere information is staggering. Corbett says weather can be such a driving factor in agriculture and we see comments like “yields can increase 30-100 per cent” – just with accurate, currently, local agronomic weather information.

With increasing population and shrinking land resources, success in the days to come would rely on predictive analytics. Although in Kenya capacity building in predictive analytics is at its nascent stages (see, for example, Grow Intelligence), there is need to build synergies with aWhere.

While we can benefit from powerful tools to predict future events such as the aWhere platform, we need to use common sense in our rural development especially in high density population areas that are used to excessive land sub-division that is also undermining productivity.

Milu Muyanga and T.S. Jayne in their 2012 study, ‘‘Effects of Population Density on Smallholder Agriculture,’’ found that farm productivity and incomes tend to rise with population density up to 600-650 persons per km²; beyond this threshold, rising population density is associated with sharp declines in farm productivity.

Currently 14 per cent of Kenya’s rural population resides in areas exceeding this population density.

With common sense, we have a technology that has worked in Ghana by doubling, or in some cases tripling farmer productivity.

Capik says the pricing for the full-platform access ranges anywhere from $25 to $75 (Sh2,260-Sh6,800) per end user, depending on the number of farmers and the size of farms.

High-income commercial farm prices are higher, marked at $350 (Sh32,000) per month. Pricing for the farm-specific, ‘smart content’ ranges from a few cents to a few dollars per field.

Richard Cecil said, “The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant.”

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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