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Hub where farmers get lessons on value addition

By Agnes Aineah
Brian Olasia, a Second Year Electronic and Computer Engineering student working on a drone that will be used in surveillance at the Innovation and Prototyping Intergated Centre at JKuat

JKUAT opens lab where both farmers and researchers seek answers to some of the problems ailing the sector. 

The brainstorming room at the Innovation and Prototyping Integrated Centre (iPIC), a new research facility at JKuat is a large empty hall.

But the two distinguishing features of the room designed to create a conducive environment for researchers is abundant internet connectivity and a whiteboard on which the researchers write ideas for their projects before they embark on serious work in adjacent rooms.

Tucked at a corner of the room is Brian Olasia, a Second Year Electronic and Computer Engineering student who has been working towards developing a drone.

Adjacent to the brainstorming room is a modelling studio with modern electronic equipment and a prototyping room where ideas are transferred into actual prototypes.

The institution borrows heavily from Japanese technology in its quest to be Kenya’s premier technology institution. Seiji Tashiro of Japan Information and Culture Centre called on innovators to embrace the innovation centre during a tour of the facility recently.

The facility, constructed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) through the AFRICA-ai-JAPAN Project, will be accessible to the public interested in furthering their research and coming up with innovations.

Dr Peter Kihato, JKuat Engineering workshop director, says all that one needs to access the high-end equipment in the facility is proof they have an innovative idea.

“This prototyping facility will be open to anyone who needs a supportive environment, access to equipment as well as support from our staff,” says Dr Kihato.

Sticking above tens of greenhouses at the research institution is a huge metallic and enmeshed greenhouse imported from Wago Company Ltd from Japan.

The greenhouse stands about five metres above the ground and is designed to grow good quality strawberries and cherry tomatoes.

In the growth space that measures about 6 by 35 metres, Caleb Ndolo, an Agriculture graduate at JKuat is tending to red, succulent strawberries that hang from potted cocopeat placed on stands.

“Farming should not be torturous. At this height, there is no need to bend. Anyone would be happy to work in this position,” says Ndolo, adding that the greenhouse system is automated to allow for fertigation, where plants in the greenhouses are irrigated and fertilised at the same time.

At one corner of the greenhouse, there is a beehive from which bees fly to aid in pollination of the plants.

“There are enough bees to provide sufficient pollination. If pollination isn’t done well, the strawberry fruits will be smaller than the way they are now. They will also be misshapen and not appealing at all to buyers,” says Ndolo.

There are also data loggers to record temperature and humidity inside the growth space. The experts explain that for good yields, temperature should be kept between 30-35 degrees celcius. Humidity should also be kept at optimum to keep fungal infections at bay.

Atsuhiro Oguri, a representative from Wago Company says the Japanese greenhouse can be remodeled to suit the local environment. He explains that the shed nets in the Japanese greenhouses have also been designed to trap more heat in the country that isn’t as hot as Kenya.

And as consumers of fresh produce are continually exposed to the danger of consuming foods laden with chemicals, Losenge Turoop, a professor at JKuat says researchers in the food science lab will be using the facility to assess the quality of food. 

Adjacent to the food science lab is a bakery where the university is baking bread and a milk and dairy processing workshop where students in the food science department are making milk and dairy products. These include yoghurt, ice cream, butter and cheese. The students are also making sausages and bacon that are sold at the university and on food expos that the university organises.

According to Turoop, the university offers a two-week training for farmers interested in gaining knowledge to establish food processing firms.

There is also a food and vegetable processing workshop where the university researchers are adding value on wild fruits such as cactus to make juices, jams wines and other types of foods.

The university is also working on an extension project of the Agricultural Laboratory Building (ALB) that will host three new laboratories, four classrooms and offices for staff and visiting researchers at the university.

The university has been grappling with laboratory space with growing enrollment, says Turoop.

“Initially, there were only about 200 students in the college of agriculture but now we have more than 2,000 students in the college,” says Turoop.

 

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