When COVID-19 cases emerged in Kenya, there were fears that the inevitable restrictions would mean people would not be able to transport their produce from the farms to the market or import staples from neighboring countries. A plague of locusts in the region in early 2020 further threatened the food supply of tens of millions. Even before COVID-19, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that almost one in five people in Kenya were food insecure. 

Kenya was a founding partner of the Global Partnership in 2015.

Since then the relationship has grown, with numerous collaborations over the last six years. The focus during the early months of the pandemic was on collecting and sharing data in real time to help the nation with its resilience, while also laying down a blueprint for future use. 

The Global Partnership was a partner in the Food Security War Room (FSWR), a consortium set up to ensure Kenya would have access to food while under movement restrictions. The key to implementation was access to data to see what food is available and where it is. 

Karen Bett, a Global Partnership policy officer who worked on this project, says it all started with a conversation on WhatsApp.

We started brainstorming on some of the solutions to tackle food security. And from the word ‘go,’ it was clear that what was worrying these stakeholders was the state of food access in the country.”

The Global Partnership was able to broker a solution using geospatial technology from Esri. 

Richard Ndegwa, National Program Coordinator for the Agricultural Sector Development Support Programme at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, and Cooperatives, says this effort made a real difference. County officers and enumerators were sent out across the nation to work with farmers and stockists to collect data on the type, surpluses, and prices of available foods. They entered their findings into an app, which fed data into an online system that the FSWR could use to make decisions.

Traders at Wangige Market in Kiambu, Kenya. Credit: Elphas Ngugi/GPSDD.

Traders at Wangige Market in Kiambu, Kenya. Credit: Elphas Ngugi/GPSDD.

Officials in the Ministry had real-time and reliable data to fully understand the situation and concerns they were hearing from people across the nation.

“Those who supply food produce to various markets were concerned about the restriction of movement in the lockdown,” Ndegwa explains. “One of the concerns was the markets and also the transportation of produce or products. The other concern that had been reported from various parts of the country was the availability, accessibility, and affordability of staple foods. There was fear that prices were going to increase, and therefore if prices were to increase, then the situation of those who are generally food insecure was going to be worsened by the restrictions.”

Mildred Sangura trained and coordinated enumerators and also went out to collect data in Mombasa. While it was an uncertain time, she says, the importance of the work kept her going out each day to work with stockists to collect data:

We explained to them that this data is important because it’s going to be used by the Government to come up with decisions on rationalization because, for instance, Mombasa is a destination county for most commodities. We were explaining to them that ‘maybe in your county you could be lacking certain commodities, but they are in excess in another county so the Government can use that kind of information to help you to be able to access it.’”

She also used the opportunity to explain what COVID-19 was and the health precautions people needed to take. While she was worried about contracting the virus herself, she persevered because she saw it as important work. “I convinced myself that gathering this information was crucial — if we get the data and the Government gets the data and uses it in the right way, a number of lives will be saved,” she says. “I believe I contributed so much because you can’t divorce food from food security from health. Some decisions were made, like rolling out programs like the kitchen gardening project, so I feel like I’ve contributed towards improving livelihoods in this COVID period.”

The technology used to collect, analyze, and visualize all this data was from the global tech company Esri, which offered its services at no charge. 

They [the FSWR] were getting information in real time, they were making decisions, almost in real time, in that it's something that almost every day that the minister could be checking how far is it and how much are we doing."

Clifford Okembo CEO at Esri Eastern Africa based in Kenya

For Ndegwa with the Agricultural Sector Development Support Programme, the key to the project was coming up with ways of mobilizing all hands on deck and using the existing structures and capacity at the county level to quickly collect and aggregate data on available food stocks. “Once we aggregated the data, it was shared with the leadership at the county level. And it was also shared with the national leadership through the FSWR that had been established. And they were able to look at the data and make decisions, particularly one of the decisions that was made to ensure that the food supply system was not disrupted.”

The FSWR soon realized that despite the restrictions on movements, trucks still needed to transport food commodities across Kenya to meet demands and avoid significant price increases. Ndegwa says their team used the data collected to ensure that vehicles transporting food across the nation and from neighboring countries were authorized to move and pass through roadblocks.

Ndegwa says the pandemic has seen an overdue focus on using technology to improve well-being.

Coronavirus is a dark cloud, but it also has its silver linings. And one of the silver linings is to make countries embrace technology.”

This increasing reliance on technology included moving from in-person to remote training, an efficient way to help build capacity in government offices and in the counties, Ndegwa says.

Post COVID-19,

Ndegwa predicts that Kenya will want to continue to use technology to improve data collection and use, to ultimately improve accuracy and efficiency in monitoring the food security situation. The apps that were developed can be customized and used to improve access to market information and linkages.

“The application that we used was very, very useful,” he says. “It gave us an indication of the potential of technology in collecting and sharing real-time and reliable data to aid in decision-making and also to inform any interventions or strategies or policies that needed to be put in place by the decision-makers.”

While the Global Partnership’s Karen Bett points out that there were some who says building an app was not going to overcome the complex issues in Kenya, introducing one has proven to be a catalyst to encourage wider changes. “It was part of a solution,” Bett says.

The Government didn’t know the food security situation, and this was a way to overcome that. The overall aim is that now the Government and all the stakeholders see the importance of getting this information, and how it can be done. The process will get the Government to rethink how it does data and can make data systems resilient. We should not be looking for farmers to mobilize data collection in an emergency. Next time there is an emergency, we want them to be ready to go with this system.”

Data for a Resilient Africa