Go Big Data for Kenya’s rising food demand

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Sebuh Haileleul, Country General Manager, Microsoft East Africa

A joint council by Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Water Council estimates that by 2050, the world will need 60 percent more food to feed its growing population. As the number of mouths to feed grows, so does the complexity of delivering enough food to the growing population. These complexities justify the seriousness with which countries must treat food security.

In Kenya, the intensity of the issue is well reflected in the government’s decision to include food security in its “Big Four Agenda” strategy which lays out the government’s priority areas for the next five years.  Here, agriculture supports up to 75% of the population and generates almost all the country’s food requirements. However, the sector continues to be hindered by major constraints that deters its full potential to adequately feed the national population.

On top of these challenges is drought because of the country’s reliance on rain-fed agricultural production, especially in arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) of Kenya which form about 88% of the country. Because of climate change impacts, the frequency and severity of drought seems to be increasing over the years. The result has been total crop failure and livestock deaths triggering severe food shortage across the country.

The outbreak and continued spread of the fall armyworm (FAW) in Kenya is becoming another major threat to food security in Kenya especially because the pest has struck right at the heart of the country’s bread basket regions in the Rift Valley. What then do policy makers and stakeholders do to ensure we remain food secure despite these threats?

As the technology sector, we are convinced that growing and advancing technology can offer invaluable solutions to achieve and sustain food security. Big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), analytics, drones, and more can rapidly transform every aspect of agricultural operations.

While the term big data is relatively new, the act of gathering and storing large amounts of information for eventual analysis is ages old. The concept gained momentum in the early 2000s when industry analyst, Doug Laney, articulated the now-mainstream definition of big data.

With the above threats and many others not mentioned and given the rate of population explosion, is it not time to give big data for food security a good space to direct sustainable agriculture? Appropriate use of available data can help us visualize and make critical simple decisions that can accurately predict and determine the future food security situation and even provide warning signals.

But how do we make data widely and easily available in the first place? Every second, thousands of bytes of valuable data are generated from several sources including posts from Twitter, text messages and even satellite images. If these data sets are utilized well, there is enormous potential to stir innovation and creativity in agricultural production.

The Kenyan government has outlined key focus areas for the country to achieve food security by 2022. Part of this involves enhanced large scale production of food, reduction of the cost of food, and a sustained drive to increase small holder productivity. It is worth noting that last year, the country produced about 40 million 90-kilogram bags. The aim is to raise this to 67 million bags in the next five years. The sector is estimated to have created 500, 000 jobs last year with an ambitious plan to increase this to 4.5 million jobs by 2022.

It is my strong believe that if these goals are anchored on innovative initiatives, we can drive transformation in the sector which will translate to increased efficiency in food production and in turn food security.

Big data and advanced analytics for instance interpret real time data, predicting short-term weather conditions and its effects, ensuring that the right quantity and mix of products is sourced in anticipation of the changes. This reduces ambiguity on weather patterns and goes a long way in contributing to the planting and harvesting seasons by increasing yields for the benefit of the farmer and the country.

The big data collection will give insight and visibility into the national level of food production, proactively spotting any shortages in time to increase production. Being better informed with this critical knowledge, never again will there be a need for Kenya to address food security in hindsight.

Apart from big data, other forms of relevant interventions include the recent partnership by Microsoft with Strathmore University School of Law to initiate discussion aimed at digitizing East Africa’s Justice, Healthcare and Agriculture systems.

It is such discussions that will have far reaching impact on impeccable innovation especially for large-scale farmers and irrigation schemes who will be able to save irreplaceable time and manpower through the utilization of technology. Moreover, with every innovation, there is the wealth of job creation for those bestowed with the service of running these operations. Technology deployment will address this sought beneficial interest of the Big 4, while taking advantage of the demographic dividend.

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