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How innovation in crop science can be the catalyst for a thriving Kenya

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Africa is a land of extremes. It is the continent most affected by climate change. It has the fastest growing, youngest population.

And with almost everything at the upper limit, it is the hardest region to feed.

As a result of these extremes, Africa is also the region that most needs science and innovation to keep pace with its rapid growth, so that the continent can feed itself and thrive.

With significant progress needed to achieve such self-sufficiency, it is no wonder that food security tops Kenya’s Big Four Agenda.

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Improving crop productivity across the continent is essential to hitting this target. But without developing and, more crucially, implementing new solutions to boost crop production, progress in achieving this critical food security goal is likely to stall.

There are undoubtedly major challenges to overcome and adapt to in Kenya where increasing crop yields are concerned. Yet we already have many innovations ready to tackle them.

Breeding better seeds is one way to improve crop quality and production. For instance, the East African Agricultural Productivity Programme (EAAPP) showed the extent to which East Africa can pioneer its own pathway to better seeds and crops.

With 138 new plant technologies developed by the programme’s Regional Centres of Excellence, 23 new of these new varieties – including cassava, rice, wheat and forage crops – have been shared across national boundaries.

Similarly, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has been developing and deploying climate-smart, pest-resistant varieties of maize through its “Water Efficient Maize for Africa” project for more than 10 years.

But the science alone is not enough. Improving distribution and farmer access to these new technologies is essential for them to be successfully adopted. One way to do this is with community action initiatives.

For example, through its ICT-enabled programme, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) and partners have been training farmers in Kenya and Uganda to help them identify, monitor and manage the recent devastating infestation of Fall Armyworm.

As a result, knowledge and management practices have improved amongst farmers and extension agents.

However, the access challenges facing farmers cannot be overcome solely through better communication and knowledge-sharing. As crop science advances, the regulatory systems that approve these innovations for use must also keep pace.

Calling for these regulatory processes to be conducted more efficiently, East African Community (EAC) partner states recently met to finalise fast-track plans for the registration of biopesticides in the region.

In addition, EAC pesticide management guidelines on registration requirements, plus efficacy and residue trials, have been established and endorsed for national adoption by 2020.

If adopted and implemented, this will enable companies to test and register promising biopesticides, which could significantly help tackle the spread of Fall Armyworm and other pests in the region.

Set to considerably speed up the time taken for approved technologies to reach farmers, this is a welcome sign of progress, which could set the precedent for improved access to other, much-needed crop protection technologies.

Insecticides, for example, are one of the few proven tools for managing pests like Fall Armyworm, but only alongside other tools. If Kenya is to thrive, achieve food security and combat invasive pests, then biopesticides must be added to the smallholder farmer’s arsenal, with thorough training in their safe use.

Equipping farmers with an array of innovative tools to execute integrated pest management (IPM) – combining insecticides, biopesticides, agronomic practices and natural enemies – is crucial.

So, while advancements in crop science innovation and adoption are being made, there are two imperative steps that must be taken to unlock the real potential of pesticides.

Firstly, better partnerships must be established between government and industry. With fast-moving invasive pests like Fall Armyworm, time is of the essence when it comes to managing an outbreak and mitigating its impact.

Proven technological solutions that already exist must be able to reach the market without delay.

And secondly, this access must be extended to the farmers, to ensure the right technology is reaching the right people.

The key to driving Kenya’s food production forward is not only developing new solutions to keep threats in check, but also the mechanisms that get them into the hands of farmers. With these tools, it will be farmers that push Kenya to thrive.

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