New centre to focus on agriculture crises through research

The University of Nairobi (UoN) has broken ground for the construction of an agricultural technology and innovation centre aimed at helping to boost the ailing agricultural sector in the country – the first of its kind in Kenya.

The project, dubbed Kantaria Agricultural Technology and Innovation Centre (KATIC), is a collaboration between UoN and Elgon Kenya, the leading agricultural input supplier in East Africa.

According to the UoN, the partnership has been going for more than two years with academia providing innovative minds needed in research while Elgon Kenya provided the funding and materials needed to help find lasting solutions to problems experienced in the agricultural sector.

“Kenya is facing one of the worst drought periods in history, leading to massive shortages in crop and animal production. Today, for the first time in my life, one small bulb of onion goes for KES20 (about 15 US cents) at our local markets, while kale and spinach, the daily meal of most town dwellers, have tiny leaves and are sold in small bunches at exceedingly soaring prices,” Peter Wafula, a horticulture student at the UoN, said.

“All this is because the agricultural sector has, for a long time, been ignored, despite Kenya having a lot of prime land to cultivate enough crops to feed itself. With enough research, we can also find solutions to continue with crop and animal production even during drought periods,” Wafula told University World News.

“Our universities are full of innovative minds ready to be tapped, and the KATIC centre is definitely a game changer for the country’s agricultural sector,” he said.

Practical learning promoted

The Kenyan government is also on an education reform mission. One of its main goals is to ensure more practical-oriented learning among university students. Its plan is to see learners spend 30% of their time doing theory, while the other 70% is to be spent on practical activities. To achieve this, the ministry of education will help set up industries or factories in all government learning institutions.

The UoN seems to be already ahead through KATIC. “For a long time, there have been concerns that universities produce graduates who lack the actual skills that are needed by employers to work in industries,” said Professor Stephen Kiama, vice-chancellor of the UoN.

“Through this agricultural centre, we will be able to provide quality education and training that will ensure our graduates are industry ready and can be absorbed by the job markets,” he told University World News.

“Our partnership with Elgon Kenya already ensures that our students have a place to go for their internships and industrial attachment programmes that enable them to get whatever knowledge they cannot learn at the institution.”

According to Kiama, the partnership has also helped address some of the county’s unemployment concerns by directly absorbing some of the students who joined Elgon Kenya through internships. “We had 26 students intern at Elgon Kenya. Six were employed and others were able to start their own business enterprises with the knowledge they had gained.”

War, unrest affect food stability

Kenya relies heavily on fertiliser and wheat importation from Russia and Ukraine. In 2021, for instance, Kenya was ranked among the top 34 wheat importers in the world after importing wheat worth US$486 million. With the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, fertilisers have become too expensive for small-scale farmers, and chapati, a staple in Kenya made from wheat, has become unaffordable on a daily basis.

Most of Kenya’s onion needs are met by its neighbour, Tanzania, and the recent civil unrest in Kenya has affected the trade routes and agreements which led to the current high onion prices.

These are some of the problems Kiama expects the centre will help solve through research and innovation. “Innovation has seen a lot of people in urban centres engage in small-scale or micro-farming activities, some growing crops for consumption and others for business purposes. KATIC is expected to be a one-stop centre for all agriculture-based input and knowledge, making it an important amenity for town dwellers,” he said.

Kiama added that farmers, learners, institutions, and investors from all over will have access to the centre to learn or exchange ideas to improve the agricultural sector.

At the recent launch, Musalia Mudavadi, Kenya’s prime cabinet secretary, lauded the project, saying that it comes at the perfect time when the country’s population growth rate needs stable agricultural production. Institutions such as KATIC, which embraced technology, science and innovation, are important in a world where climate change, economic and land scarcity reign, he said.