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Seven ways technology can ensure food security

Saturday May 23 2020


Since the lockdown, delivery demand for food via e-commerce has grown. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kenya is ranked among the top 10 countries in the world expected to be most impacted by coronavirus pandemic, according to the Overseas Development Institute’s vulnerability index.

It is estimated that the economy will suffer a fall in output of Sh1 trillion. Along with widespread job losses, food insecurity and hunger are a big concern.

Food production levels are already low, following heavy rainfall and the destruction of over 10,000 acres of crops by locusts. Supply is further curtailed due to restrictions on movement.

FoodTech encompasses food e-commerce, digital food management and digital nutrition. It plays a pivotal role in addressing food insecurity, simultaneously creating the potential of new jobs:

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

Since the lockdown, delivery demand for food via e-commerce has grown. For instance, Gobeba has recorded a 200 per cent increase in grocery sales.


A restaurant chain has turned into a cloud kitchen, partnering with delivery companies to sell ready-meals. Other platforms have come together to offer free same-day delivery service of a bundle cheaper than many brick-and-mortar outlets.

Some supermarkets have also partnered with courier service providers to boost online shopping and home delivery. However, food e-commerce has yet to be integrated with food distribution schemes to support low-income households.

#2: Food e-commerce stimulating jobs

Although large food aggregators and supermarkets are already working at or over capacity to meet demand, more micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) need to join the fray by producing ready meals and delivering (logistics) groceries to low-income households.

However, commission fees of approximately 30 per cent, charged by large food aggregators, inhibit MSME participation.

#3: Digital food management supporting microlending

Digital food management includes order, safety, inventory and data management through cloud services, SMS, interactive voice response and blockchain.

Some platforms support informal shop vendors to manage inventory and deliver products with short lead times and use blockchain technology to introduce rapid microlending.

Scaling up such interventions can infuse liquidity. Cloud services (orders, food safety data, customer data) are adopted by less than 23 per cent of businesses due to high costs.

#4: Digital currencies for the poor

Blockchain currencies - such as e-vouchers - are gaining popularity. For instance, Sarafu Credit allows microbusinesses to exchange local goods and services using blockchain-enabled e-vouchers when cash is scarce.

SMS backed e-voucher systems are also piloted in local community organisations and platforms such as M-Changa to send out SMS food vouchers to food insecure households, which can be collected at pre-designated spots to minimise touch points.

#5: Digital services in nutrition

The government currently does not use any nutrition apps to track immunity and register health histories for vulnerable households.

The government can replicate an SMS/IVR version of Covid-19 symptom trackers used in many countries to not only self-report symptoms but also provide food intake data, map out the level of immunity and diet diversity.

#6: Sensors for promoting safe trade

Since Kenya imports almost 90 per cent of its rice, 75 per cent of its wheat and 10 per cent of maize, trade facilitation is crucial.

Emerging partnerships between the government and donors are fast-tracking processing and clearance of cargo, using sensors to check the health of truck drivers and developing screening and reporting mechanisms through online apps.

#7: Open data initiatives and data commons for food

Creating data commons to share daily reporting of production, remote sensing data and early warning systems can enable rapid internalisation of shocks and mitigate socio-economic losses.

The government can ramp up support for big open data initiatives such as the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International and African Regional Data Cube.

These short-term responses can boost the goals of the 10-year Agriculture Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy (2019-2029). Leveraging and scaling up FoodTech can create win-win situations.

Dr Aarti Krishnan is a Hallsworth Research Fellow at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester; [email protected]