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Invest in research to ensure food security

Shop attendants at the flour section of a Nairobi supermarket.  FILE PHOTO | NMG
Shop attendants at the flour section of a Nairobi supermarket. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

I went to Egerton University last week to give a keynote speech at their 11th International Conference and Research Week. The conference theme was ‘‘Knowledge and Innovation for Social and Economic Development.’’

I titled my presentation ‘‘Knowledge and Innovations: Opportunities and Challenges of Re-inventing the Kenyan Education System to Transform Our Society.’’ It was under the conference’s sub-theme of ‘‘Education and Capacity Development.’’

Before the ceremonies started, second year theatre arts students performed a play that centred on the conference theme and the role of policy in enhancing innovation.

The “scientists” had come up with a new innovation that was rich in protein from “crickets” to deal with the problem of malnutrition in their “county” and as usual had to fight with national and county leaders to prioritize the project.

They eventually convinced the “governor” to allocate them research funds that led to the product launch. The audience had a good laugh, but this wasn’t a joke.

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Africa is once again in the news with heart-wrenching images of malnourished children. Somalia is going through the worst drought experience of a similar magnitude to Ethiopia’s in 1984. But even without famine, stunting is rampant in many seemingly wealthy countries, including Kenya.

Africa is in dire need of new approaches to food. We are stuck in 18th century eating practices that put pressure on few products when there is plenty to substitute our traditional meals.

There is no meaningful intervention to declining yield rates in essential cereals that we consider as food. There is no effort to educate people to adopt new diets as a strategy for attaining food security.

In the 21st century our food wastage rate, standing at 40 per cent after harvest, is appallingly high. Yet technologies to sustain value exist. If we paid attention to food as we do to politics, we would perhaps begin to invest in local research.

We would perhaps begin to change food consumption behaviour patterns that inform the cost of what we eat. We would at least look at the Sustainable Development Goals as a God-sent opportunity to take many people out of poverty and ensure they have something to eat.

There is every likelihood that in the next 10 years, we shall have depleted fish from all our lakes even at sea owing to increasing demand. That will impact on the protein requirements and force the population to seek it from crickets as the students demonstrated.

The problem with Africa is the culture of shifting blame sometimes unfairly towards the government.

But when you carefully scrutinize policy pronouncement, everything is out there in black and white waiting for entrepreneurs to exploit.

Take for example last week’s national Budget presentation. The government put in place measures to continue rehabilitating and expanding irrigation schemes (national, smallholder and community based) in a bid to reduce dependency on rain-fed agriculture and ensure food security. Sh400 million was set aside for development of designated fish ports at the Coast to facilitate deep sea fishing while Sh300 million was allocated to improve aquaculture technology development and innovation transfers.

In my view, Members of Parliament and the county governments should carry the message to the people and educate them on how to utilize this policy intervention to improve on their lives.

As usual, politics of personality will take precedence. The people have the responsibility this year to elect those who can focus on development and perhaps have an understanding that our greatest enemy today is poverty, which undermines all of our basic necessities articulated in SDGs.

Africa’s path to a brighter future is flawed. We must invest in continuous change through research and understand our environment for sustainability.

This means building predictive models that inform policy and encourage leaders to communicate the same. And more importantly, we must explore ways and means of changing unhelpful cultural practices, including our beloved knack for passing the buck.

We must take responsibility for our actions and our future.

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