Innovators step up the fight against food insecurity


Workers at Tuisuswo Store in Uasin Gishu County offload maize from a truck. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

As Kenya battles one of its worst food crisis that has pushed inflation towards the double-digit mark, innovators have moved to find local solutions that can be replicated at the grassroots.

Kenya is battling the worst drought in 40 years which hurt food production due to farming's overreliance on rainfall. The situation has seen food prices hit sky-highs in an economy where incomes have remained largely stagnant.

The latest Kenya Economic Update by the World Bank has indicated that many Kenyan households are resorting to reducing food consumption, selling assets, or borrowing to purchase food.

“The share of Kenyan households with members going hungry in the past 30 days due to a lack of food jumped from one-third in November 2021-March 2022 to more than half in June 2022,” said the World Bank.

Prices of foodstuffs like sukuma wiki (collard greens), matumbo (offal), beef and tomatoes, which feature prominently on the dinner tables of most Kenyan households, rose the fastest in the past 10 years to 2021.

In the midst of all the uncertainty surrounding food security plans, a group of youthful innovators drawn from various Kenyan universities look to make their contribution in efforts to mitigate hunger.

The innovators, who are focusing on agribusiness, showcased their plans to ensure the availability and affordability of food to low-income households during this year’s edition of the annual Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) Technologies and Innovation Programme Trade Fair.

The tech show held on December 13 at the Nabongo Cultural Centre in Mumias attracted players in the food value chain including farmers, outside caterers, cultural troupes and university students.

The IREN programme seeks to promote awareness and adaptation of smart sustainable solutions for agribusiness in the areas of finance, security, labour enhancement, markets and big data.

This year’s edition sought to inculcate inventive problem-solving techniques, and enable innovators to partner with technical institutions and innovation hubs for structured hackathons.

“Innovation holds the key to helping Kenya’s counties confront and counter the huge food security challenges,” said James Shikwati, the founding director of IREN.

Noting that more than 40 per cent of the indigenous vegetables that farmers produce is never consumed but go to waste due to poor harvesting and the tedious process of sieving between grass and vegetable stems, Nelson Chegero has created a plucking machine dubbed the African Leafy Vegetable Plucker.

The machine, Chegero says, has the capacity to harvest double what manpower can do in fewer hours and with more sieving efficiency.

Harrison Macharia and Flavian Esther have jointly invented a vacuum storage bag that addresses post-harvest losses from biotic factors such as insects and abiotic factors such as temperature, rain and humidity.

The vacuum bag provides chemical-free storage of cereals as it is made to cut out oxygen and general air entry so as to eliminate any organisms trapped inside.

Elphas Shikokot’s innovation is a two-chamber storage facility designed to control and keep away rodent invasion.

The structure is fitted with a wire that cannot be penetrated by rodents and can be adjusted according to the farmer’s needs such as the weight and quantity of produce to be stored.

Statistics show that rodents destroy at least one per cent of the world’s cereal produced annually with the figure surging to 5 per cent in third-world countries.

On top of the consumption, they are also notorious for contaminating food supplies through urine, faecal and pathogenic deposits rendering the food not fit for human consumption.

For Laurence Naviswa, the mission is to increase the shelf life of farm produce, especially vegetables, through the use of a blanching machine.

Mr Naviswa says the device has the ability to retain the nutrients, taste and appearance of the preserved product.

Victor Wabwire has joined forces with four others who include Salvor Anyango, Oscar Ooko, Diana Kerich and Denver Kulecho to make environment-friendly packaging bags that they say reduce carbon emissions to lows of up to 0.04 per cent.

“The packaging material is reusable, bio-degradable, energy saving and employs raw dried banana fibres readily available in the lakeside region,” the group says.

Other inventions include the potato slicer that chops up to one tonne of the tuber per hour, a fresh fruit canning machine that reduces fruit wastage, a moisture and wetness sensor that aims to promote vegetable drying and a milk capsule that seeks to reduce solid waste from milk packets and sweetener wrappers by 40 per cent.

Additionally, there is a vortex air cooler that helps lower vegetable temperature during storage, a nutrition plate that is designed to contain three compartments that remind consumers to take a balanced diet and an integrated solar drier that is meant to protect drying foods from ultraviolet radiations, dust, insects and general pollution.

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