Ways technology can boost food security, rev up jobs in Kenya

New technologies can support a resilient food value chain in a post-Covid world. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • The methods we apply in producing, selling or serving our edibles have pivotal role to play in addressing growing shortages.

Kenya is ranked in the top 10 countries of the world that will be most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) vulnerability index.

It is estimated that the Kenyan economy will suffer a fall in output of $10 billion (Sh1 trillion). Along with the economic devastation, including widespread job losses for informal sector daily wage earners and MSMEs accounting for 85 percent of Kenya’s total employment), food insecurity is one of the biggest concerns.

Food production levels are already low, following heavy rainfall in the 2019/2020 harvest year and the destruction of over 10,000 acres of crops by locust attacks in March 2020. Supply is further curtailed due to the lockdown and closure of local food markets, marginalising food access of the poor.

Like never before, FoodTech, which encompasses any technologies applied to the way we produce, sell, or serve food, has a pivotal role to play in addressing the growing food security crisis. With Kenya already ranking highest amongst African countries in terms of digital readiness in agriculture, here are five ways FoodTech can support food security and jobs during and after the Covid-19 pandemic:

1: Food-e-commerce as an alternative distribution system

Food and beverages accounted for 10 percent of e-commerce in Kenya in 2019. Since the pandemic lockdown, demand for food via e-commerce has grown. For instance, Gobeba has recorded a 200 percent increase in grocery sales. Java House has turned into a cloud kitchen partnering with Uber Eats, Jumia Food and Glovo to sell ready-meals. Twiga and Jumia have come together to offer free same-day delivery service of the Freshi bundle, cheaper than many supermarkets. Supermarkets such as Tuskys have expanded their retail options and network by partnering with various courier service providers to boost online shopping and home delivery for both household items and food.

However, food e-commerce has yet to be integrated with food distribution schemes to support vulnerable low-income households. While the government is attempting to use geospatial targeting and information from last year’s census to identify vulnerable families, they have not yet tapped into the potential of food e-commerce to increase the frequency of food and maintain quality of delivery. Food e-commerce should be integrated with safety net programmes during and after the time of Covid.

Although large food aggregators like UberEats and supermarkets are already working at or over capacity to meet demand, more MSMEs need to join the fray by producing ready-meals (cloud kitchens) and delivering (logistics) groceries for low-income households. However, high membership and commission fees charged by large food aggregators marginalise MSMEs from participating in this space. The government needs to regulate the fees charged in this pandemic season.

2: Digital food management for community support

Digital food-management includes order, inventory and data management through cloud services, SMS, interactive voice response (IVR) and block chain. Twiga, a B2B platform, supports informal shop vendors to manage inventory and deliver products with short lead times and uses block chain technology by partnering with IBM to introduce micro lending to food vendors. Small shops and street hawkers can thus continue to work through the pandemic. Cloud services are an essential digital food management service which only 23% of private business take-up due to high costs. MSMEs need training and subsidised costs to adopt cloud services to facilitate widespread use.

Block chains backed community currencies, and vouchers are also prevalent. For instance, Sarafu Credit allows a network of micro-businesses to exchange local goods and services using blockchain-enabled digital coupons when the currency is scarce. Similarly, services are used by Kenyan Red Cross to deliver food relief supplies.

SMS backed voucher systems have been piloted in Mathare with local community organisations and crowdfunding platforms such as M-Changa, to send out food vouchers via SMS to severely food insecure households. Again, both these voucher systems need to be scaled and guaranteed through funds that are part of the government’s relief package. They can be implemented with the help of donors, NGOs and the private sector to target more impoverished regions. In sum, digital food-management facilitates effective targeting of poor households and provides an opportunity to create more jobs for MSMEs as well as improve their productivity.

3: Digital services in nutrition

The government currently does not use any nutrition apps to track immunity and register health histories for vulnerable households. There are sporadic examples of the use of apps to track nutrition levels. To facilitate preventative management for vulnerable households and enhance targeting, the government can roll out apps like the UK developed C-19 symptom tracker that uses self-reported symptoms and food intake data to map out the level of immunity and diet diversity.

4: Sensors for promoting safe trade

Since Kenya imports almost 90 percent of its rice, 75 percent of its wheat and 10 percent of maize, trade facilitation is crucial. The government and TMEA are fast-tracking processing and clearance of cargo, using sensors to check the health of truck drivers and develop screening and reporting mechanisms through online apps.

5: Open data initiatives and data commons for food

Creating data commons to share daily reporting of production, logistics information, early warning weather systems can enable rapid internalisation of shocks and the adoption of strategic steps to mitigate socio-economic losses. The government could ramp up support for big open data initiatives such as the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International online information resource and African Regional Data Cube.

Along with these immediate responses, resilience-building plans need to be in place, in line with the Big 4 Agenda and 10-year Agriculture Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy (2019-2029) relating to 100 percent food security, enhancing food productivity and MSME participation. Managing food losses while simultaneously increasing the quantity and quality of jobs can be obtained through scaling up MSME participation in long-life packing, like Modified Atmosphere Packaging. This is still in a very nascent stage in Kenya.

Jobs for MSMEs can also be created through fast-tracking participation in 3D food printing, to personalise and customise food. 3D printing technology is already in use from printing PPE equipment to apparel, therefore expanding the remit to food can reduce food wastage and imported emissions on food.

Leveraging and scaling up FoodTech can create win-win situations, by not only helping address food insecurity but also tackling growing unemployment and the exclusion of MSMEs from value chains. These new technologies can thus support a resilient food value chain in a post-Covid world.

is a Hallsworth Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. Email: [email protected]

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