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Artificial intelligence on the farm

By Patrick Kariuki

Henry Kinyua, Digital Green head in East Africa, on the future of agriculture and the crucial role Artificial Intelligence-powered technologies will play in beating climate change.

1.  What is Digital Green and what does it do?

Digital Green is an international development organisation that uses simple tools of information technology to drive transformative innovation to improve human lives.

2. In your assessment, what is the state of agriculture in Kenya?

Weak. We are at a position we ought not to be in and we must come out of it soon. Our imports of food commodities hit an all-time high of over Sh252 billion in 2017 although this reduced to Sh132 billion in 2018. In addition, farmers’ earnings are at an all-time low, investment into the sector has declined drastically, citizens are dying of hunger, exports are declining, agro-processing is declining and there is incredibly low investment in agriculture.

After 50 years of independence and after training thousands of professionals in Kenya, some of whom are leading the transformation of agriculture globally, and with a vibrant private sector, this is unacceptable and it surely must change if we are to remain strong as a country. Food security is national security and we have to see it that way and act accordingly.

3. What can we do?

All is not lost. The latest Agriculture Sector Growth and Transformation Strategy (2019-2029) is a great document and if it is properly implemented, it is capable of pulling us in the right direction. The creation of the Agricultural Transformation Office - which will act like a central coordination office - the setting of clear priority commodities and activities and the supporting of 1,000 farmer SMEs are some of the highlights of the new strategy. The proposal to use technology in distributing subsidies is another development that makes me a little optimistic. We are watching its implementation.

4. What is your position on the Kenya Dairy Board regulations for the dairy sector, which were recently withdrawn? 

Regulations are welcome since as a country we cannot build any sector without having a proper policy and legal framework. So regulations are needed to guide the industry.

However, government bodies responsible for this must invest significantly in civic education and public participation. The regulations were viewed as being imposed on farmers without considering their views. Farmers and stakeholders had to reject them. It was, however, cowardly for KDB to withdraw them without providing a timeline on when they will review them. They should have taken feedback from the public regardless of the hostility with which it was received and acted on the feedback.

5. How about the agriculture/ crop regulations, especially as they touch on manure?

Again, civic education and public participation was inadequate. The need to prevent use of raw manure, though necessary, was vaguely addressed. It talked about raw manure and did not define what stage of manure preparation was ‘raw’. Secondly, this provision will be almost impossible to enforce at national level. Maybe the national regulations should ask county governments to develop guidelines on use of manure-based inputs on their environments. Manure is available in different forms and is used for different purposes in different counties, so you cannot have a blanket regulation for all counties.

6. Climate change is a big issue, we are already facing the consequences, what should be our next course of action?

The government needs to increase investments in new technologies on early warning systems, and soil and water management. They also need to invest in innovations on breeding of crops, and animal species that are adaptable to the prevailing circumstances. In this area, I must commend the government for its efforts so far. The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) has developed seeds for various dry land commodities (for example bean varieties maturing in 65 days, sorghum, millet and other dry land grains).

Their current investment, together with the World Bank, in developing the Kenya Agricultural Observatory Platform, which uses big data and artificial intelligence to provide real time weather, pest and disease information to farmers, is very important.

Farmers must also seek advisory support from county governments before deciding to produce any commodity. Better have fallow lands than lands with crops that cannot be harvested. Also, all farmers should invest in rain water harvesting and adopt new technologies and farming practices such as zero tillage and feed lotting.

7. How will Agriculture change in East Africa over the next 10 years, and what role will Digital Green play?

I see more use of technology in the entire agriculture value chain than before. I also see a push towards new crop varieties adaptable to climate change. I see an agriculture sector that will feed nations and provide raw materials to agro-factories.

I see youth moving out of primary agriculture production and moving into agro-processing and support sectors. I see more of voluntary land consolidation where youth that are interested will lease land from those exiting the sector to build larger farms. So, despite current challenges, I’m optimistic that the tide will change for the better.  

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