Kenyan and British researchers resolve to eradicate famine and food insecurity in Kenya

Posted by ap507 at Feb 19, 2018 09:20 AM |
University of Leicester’s expertise in Earth Observation helping to build a more sustainable world

Issued by the University of Leicester on Monday 19 February

Images of the workshop and the team in Kenya available here:

An international team of researchers, including scientists from the University of Leicester, is spearheading a Newton-Utafiti Fund project delivered by the British Council to restore food security to millions of vulnerable households in Kenya following natural disasters.

The project has identified a number of ways to reduce the deterioration of ecosystems in Kenya through the University of Leicester’s expertise in Earth Observation science in collaboration with the University of Nairobi - including adaptation strategies, for instance replacing maize with sweet potato in regions where maize production is becoming insecure and using satellite imagery to identify pests and diseases and find ways to predict the best locations to grow tea, one of Kenya’s major exports.

The developments were discussed at a bilateral Food Security Workshop in Nairobi where 40 scientists from UK and Kenya higher educational institutions, research institutes, government and civil society organisations met, discussed and resolved to work together to strengthen Kenya’s food security systems to enhance robustness and resilience to natural disasters.

The workshop aimed at strengthening research capacity through supporting the career development of the early-career researchers, build a network and identify research priorities for food security in Kenya.

The workshop discussed the Food Security Strategy of Kenya and how the deterioration of many ecosystems continues to threaten its success.

Heiko Balzter, Professor of Physical Geography and Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester, said: “Kenya is greatly concerned about projected changes in climate over East Africa and its possible impacts on agriculture and livestock production through increased intensity and frequency of droughts and flash flooding. Opportunities created by climate change and rainwater capture in rural communities include livelihood diversification.

“Food insecurity persists particularly in arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya, but soil and water conservation in the highlands are also still inefficient and ecosystem degradation is occurring. Stronger knowledge and skills dissemination from research into policy are urgently needed.”

Faith Karanja, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Geospatial and Space Technology, said: “Universities play a critical role in capacity building specifically in Earth Observation for Food Security. With the help of University of Leicester, appropriate knowledge and skills in the use of Earth Observation data to deal with climate change impacts will be used to enhance food insecurity in Kenya. The involvement of other stakeholders, for instance, line ministries, research institutions, Non-Governmental Institutions, Industry as well as community participation is also very key in ensuring success.”

New Earth Observation satellites offer better information on the state of ecosystems - but translating the data into food security impacts is still challenging.

Declining soil fertility leads to declining food production and food security, especially in smallholder farming systems which would benefit from more sustainable soil, water and nutrient management.

Using Earth Observation data, climate, land use and vegetation condition can be monitored to develop a diagnostic system for crop growth performance and water availability.

Data integration of Earth Observation, in-situ and modelling data is required to improve information access and timely dissemination. The workshop learned about the JULES land surface model and how it represents carbon, water and energy fluxes between the land and the atmosphere.

Tea is one of Kenya’s major cash crops for exports. Tea leaves change colour during the growing season which is likely to be detectable from satellite land surface reflectance images. Predicting where to grow which tea variety is an unresolved research challenge.

Kenya’s highlands are an important banana producing region which can contribute to improving production and food security, however, bananas are mainly grown by resource-poor farmers, mainly women, for subsistence and are threatened by banana weevils and parasitic nematodes, which are migratory and temperature-dependent. Nematodes, tiny roundworms in the soil, can cause yield losses of over 40%.

Water resources also play a key role in food security. Satellite images of Lake Turkana have shown impacts of a new dam in Ethiopia on lake water quality and fisheries, which affects 3000 people who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.

Challenges and opportunities of building sustainable food systems can be investigated by applying life cycle assessment techniques to the food supply chain. This also allows a quantitative assessment of food waste which globally constitutes between 1/3 and 1/2 of all produced food. Reducing the plate size by 50% has been shown to reduce food waste by 50% because of reduced leftovers.

Professor Balzter added: “The nexus between education and food security includes child poverty, education inequalities and children’s rights. Most African countries are agrarian and education can provide empowerment. Kenya’s universities play a key role in capacity building in Earth observation and food security research and practice. Culture and gender issues (traditions) inhibit food security in parts of Kenya. Overlooking religious aspects in the sustainability debate is an issue, in particular in Africa. The concept of social value creation means assessing how to create value for the community. This is a concept that allows non-monetary value assessment.”

Dr John Atibila, Director of Innovation, Research & Partnerships of Ghana Baptist University College (GBUC) and Visiting Knowledge Exchange Fellow at University of Leicester, who was one of the workshop mentors said: “Food Security is an interdisciplinary issue which requires interdisciplinary scientists, policy makers, civil society groups and frontline staff to tackle the problems. This workshop has brought together an amazing group of interdisciplinary participants, with research and work experiences from several UK/EU and African countries to find critical solutions to Kenya’s food security challenges.”

To translate workshop outcomes to research and development action, three Research Working Groups and a Research Network were formed:

  • Water Resources Group: This group aims to work together on water related issues, including water scarcity, waste water recycling/re-use in food production, migration and conflicts.
  • Food Systems/Security Group: The group aims to research into food waste. Innovative and lesser-used species, food diversifications away from staple crops such as maize (indictor of food security in Kenya).
  • Sustainable Agriculture Group: The group’s mandate covers innovative farming systems, ecosystem services, climate-smart agriculture/climate change adaptations and early warning systems.
  • Kenya Food Security Action Network: For continued engagement between mentors and participants, capacity building of Early Career Researchers, including an online learning platform for MOOCs, sharing knowledge, experiences and best practice, sharing research and funding information and resources, supporting team building and proposal writing/peer reviews and guiding/supporting online application submissions to UK/EU and other calls.

After returning to their home universities and institutes, the participants have formed a networking group, Kenya Food Security Network to work in smaller teams, and seek funding and resources to strengthen food security interventions. Research outcomes from the Working Groups will form the evidence for science-policy-practice linkages, which will contribute to eradicating famine and enhance food security in Kenya.

This work was supported by Researcher Links grant, ID 2016-RLWK7-10407, under the Newton-Utafiti Fund partnership. The grant is funded by the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and National Research Fund, Kenya and managed by both funding agencies. For further information, please visit and


Notes to editors:

For further information contact Professor Heiko Balzter on

About the Newton Fund

The Newton Fund builds research and innovation partnerships with 18 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare, and to develop their research and innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries.

The Newton Fund is managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 15 UK delivery partners, which include the Research Councils, the UK Academies, the British Council, Innovate UK and the Met Office.

For further information visit the Newton Fund website ( and follow via Twitter: @NewtonFund.


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