Open Data is Key to Kenya's Future and Food Security

On 26 September 2013, I met with Professor Beth Noveck of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss issues relating to an upcoming conference on Open Data in November 2013. In about three minutes, the prolific professor and former Barack Obama advisor on technology had asked why we were in New York, what makes Kenya think it will be the best technology hub and why we want to build a tech city (Konza Techno City).

Noveck is driven by data. Data is her life and the future in solving many problems.

I concurred with her and felt bad that we have not exploited what already is out there in the Open Data Portal.

At JFK airport, I picked up the Financial Times and was drawn to an article titled, Chances of Survival are on the rise, Andrew Jack argues in the article that significant advances have been made by scientists in the battle against the disease but victory remains elusive.

Further he said “poor quality data – in identifying cases, registering outcomes from treatment and confirming deaths from cancer – means precise figures are difficult. Yet estimates from 2008 suggest that, at least 12 million people around the world contract the desease annually, 8 million die from it and nearly 30 million are living five years after diagnosis”.

This is precisely what I had been discussing with Professor Noveck.

How do we identify a problem as well as solution by utilizing technology? Can we for example create a mobile app for Cancer patients? Can the doctors be compelled to report the data to a central data bank? How about indigenous contribution to this knowledge? What is Africa’s future with respect to both food security as well as safety?

I was pleasantly surprised to read in Sunday Nation newspaper an article by a Nation Correspondent in Arusha titled "Why Africa food crisis persists?".

In this article, every data you need to solve the problem was given and I must commend the writer since he effectively used data to drive the point home.

He said

“One of the reasons for low yields has been the high rate of soil nutrient depletion”.

This is the outcome of excessive land subdivision. Citing a report from Alliance for Green Africa headed by Kofi Annan and company and funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, the report says Africa uses only 8Kg of fertilizer per hectare when it needs to use at least 50Kgs for the same.

Currently, Africa uses less than 3% of global fertilizer and if we doubled that to 6%, plus better seed, we can improve crop production by 50%. We need this data available in all formats if indeed we want to change Africa.

Per Hectare Fertilizer Use by Markets

How do we get this message to the ordinary farmer?

I mentioned to Professor Noveck that I am carefully analyzing the issue of "Agriculture in Africa" because it comes with greater opportunities, but we need to tackle what our role should be in creating a modern Africa.

Who precipitates change?

We have more than 70% of Africans referred to as farmers when in fact we know that in as much as small holder farmers contribute to 80% of the consumption, only less than 10% are what you can call farmers. The rest are under employed hangers on in rural Africa continuously undermining productivity and their activities are not sustainable.

Our discussion later drifted into what Universities are doing to prepare for massive change that is on the horizon. This is where we feature poorly. While some of the leading Universities have changed significantly their courses, we have not. We still offer yesterday programs and we are not able to manage knowledge properly.

We need for example to have a course in history for everything. History of technology, history of cancer, history of agriculture in Kenya and so on. What this would do is to force us to begin to understand our past that will inform our future.

Sometime back I read Prof. H.W.O Okoth-Ogendo’s paper, "The perils of Land tenure reform: a case of Kenya that extensively draws from R.J.M Swynnetorn Report 1954". The report first proposed privatization of land in order to improve on agricultural productivity. Prior to 1954, land tenure was communal. This is where our land disease started and has spread on to Zimbabwe.

How do we reverse the acquired culture and move people to rural urban cities or communal settlement? How can we build on the Maasai land tenure practices?

It will be a mockery of our intellectual capital if we continue to slide in both food security and safety.

We have the knowledge but we are looking to elsewhere to sort our problems. If we do not deal with the food situation comprehensively, then none of us will be safe in the days to come.


Let us crowd source the solutions and ways we can take this debate to rural Kenya. I started this in selected districts. Initially I thought they would call me a mad man but I have four invitations from different groups in different parts of the country to discuss and propose the way forward.

Perhaps we need to draw the job description of the
1. County Representative
2. The Member of Parliament (MP)
3. The Senator
4. The Governor
5. The President

This is necessary in order to articulate these problems. I can bet a million shillings that the county representative does not know that it is her responsibility to ensure utilities are available in their locality.

Check with Ongata Rongai, Kitengela and other fast growing peri urban centers, the representatives do not even know where to start. This is the problem. Any member of Parliament will tell you that most of the legislatures hardly know any piece of legislation that goes through Parliament.

We need to draw a performance contract with all legislatures, at least an exam on all the legislations that they have passed. The Governor, watching the Kiambu Debate on NTV, only God will help them before they end up in jail (Except for Nyoro and to some extent Kabogo, they are incoherent in explaining such problems as Mungiki menace and creating jobs for youth).

The people of Kenya must precipitate change.

Cover Image Credit: Benno Hansen

Chart Credit: