KARI scientists embrace tech to boost research

KARI-scientists-embrace-tech-to-boost-researchOver 400 scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute can now publish their journals and keep up to date with global scientific trends thanks to a Sh4million fiber optic network installed by data, voice and IP provider Liquid Telecom Kenya.

The network connects 25 Kenya Agricultural Research Institute centers at a time when the premier agricultural research institution has embraced technology to bolster its research. In its bid to reach the mid level economy status by 2030, Kenya is counting on key sectors like agriculture to drive that growth. This, through modernizing farming, research and innovations transfer. KARI has been entrusted with the bulk of the research that allows the country to feed its population and a surplus for trade.

However the national research body has been struggling to keep up with their regional and international peers in information sharing and access as the internet infrastructure remains unreliable. “We are in the age of high technological boom which has particularly become important to researchers and scientists who cannot do without internet which allows them to exchange ideas and share industry developments. It has however been so hard for our scientists to keep pace with their global peers due to poor infrastructure,” said Boniface Akuku the Information Management and Communication Technology assistant director at KARI.

The over 480 KARI scientists in the country relied on the inferior 3G network to access the internet. The modems which had to be shared also meant delay in access and passing of information among the scientists. “In my center for example my staff had no access to internet access at all. They could first pass through cyber cafes before coming to work especially the scientists who rely on the internet on daily basis. It was expensive for them and for the center because they always arrived late for work,” said Dr. Patrick Gicheru the Center Director at National Agricultural Research Institute. The center is one of the largest among the 34 centers hosting 70 scientists and 150 staff members. Yet none of the scientists had seamless internet connection.

But a Wide Area Network infrastructure installed and completed in May this year by Liquid Telecom Kenya after winning a competitive bidding process has made impressive turnarounds. From allowing scientists easier and faster access to scientific journals, to enhancing easier communication among the centers and using the new technology to leverage information access to farmers across the country, the infrastructure has been the institution’s holy grail in its pursuit to become regional leader in cutting edge research.

The speed with the new internet is phenomenal. We are saving so much in terms of the money we used to buy internet bundles. I don’t even have to be stuck in my computer in the office to send official communication to staff at the center or any other center. With my smartphone I can easily do that because we have WIFI all over the center. The success of the new internet connection is evident in the amount of work and output we are getting from the staff,” said Dr. Charles Waturu the center director at KARI Thika.

Charity Wangari Gathambiri is among 40 scientists from KARI Thika who has benefitted from the superior infrastructure. A food scientist she says internet and information access is key in her line of duty because she has to constantly check scientific journals and interact with other scientists globally.

“It was a really tough sell before. You can imagine sharing a modem with so many of the scientists each with their own pressing needs and deadlines to meet. It was so frustrating for me because I rely on internet since food science is a very complex and fast evolving field that requires one to be constantly updated. You can imagine how easy life has become for me since the installation of the new infrastructure,” said Charity.

The fiber network’s fast speed has also enabled Charity to enroll for an e learning course with Association of Food Scientists and Technologists and nearing completion. “It has become so easy for me to study. To compete globally with my peers I need to be constantly updated. I have so many and heavy documents that I need to upload and download in the course of my course. I would never have imagined doing that with the old internet connection,” said Charity.

The WAN infrastructure has also enabled the institution clean up and re organize the IT department that was in shambles. Previously scientists and majority of the staff members never had official email accounts which made professionalism an issue in correspondence. “It was so bad because you can imagine a scientist having discovered an innovation and now seeking funding to actualize the concept. They could use their gmail and yahoo accounts which made it very hard for them to convince prospective donors that they were legitimate,” said Akuku.

The speed at which the correspondence between scientists across the 25 centers is happening hasn’t gone unnoticed. Scientists say they share documents, compare notes and even give each other feedback at the snap of the finger. “I am in constant communication with fellow scientists from all the centers especially when I need urgent information. Response from them has been like a flash of light. The gains I am experiencing and the time and energy I have said is incomparable,” said Daniel Kilambia a social scientist based at the National Agricultural Research Institute.

But it is the ease and speed with which KARI is now able to disseminate information to farmers that has rubberstamped the importance of technology in information dissemination and transfer.  Technology Information Units, TIUs, which have been installed in Embu and Thika are information booths set up in strategic areas at the centers allow farmers to log in and get as much information as possible about agriculture and KARI innovations.

To be rolled out in 11 centers the TIUs are billed to be one of the ways KARI is trying to reach farmers even as it prides itself in numerous agricultural innovations which lie idle even as thousands of farmers remained informed about them. This, KARI has blamed on poor information channels.

“Agricultural research is an integral aspect in ensuring food security in a country. The role that technology plays in research cannot be gainsaid. There are masses of information lying idle at the KARI and as Kenya enjoys a technological boom it is only reasonable that we leverage on this boom to push this information to as many farmers as possible, in the easiest and cheapest way. This is what the fibre optic connection has sought to do,” said Paul Statham the Chief Commercial Officer at Liquid Telecom.

His remarks are supported by research by agricultural bodies who sees research as an important precursor to increasing yields. A research on the returns agricultural research paid found that in Africa spending on agricultural research generated high payoffs in the region, with each dollar spent generating a median internal rate of return of 37 percent. Research on pearl millet, maize, sorghum, potatoes, beans, wheat and cowpeas generated returns ranging from 16 percent to 135 percent.

Another study in India revealed that government investment in agricultural research and extension had a larger impact on economic growth than spending on other rural programmes, such as rural roads, irrigation, rural electrification, soil and water conservation, education, and health. Moreover, it had an impact on reducing poverty, second in significance only to rural roads.