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Dr. Jessica Agnew and Dr. Ralph Hall help land project to develop app that improves food security in Kenya

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Kenya is one the most developed countries in East Africa, yet 40 million people live in poverty and are unable to meet their nutritional needs. African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs), known for their nutritional and health benefits, could help improve food nutrition, especially among low-income households. However, challenges such as mistrust between buyers and sellers, preferences for exotic vegetables such as cabbage or kale, and lack of knowledge about food preparation have limited their potential.

Thanks to a project awarded to CIRED, actors in Kenya’s AIV value chain may soon benefit from a technology that helps close financial and informational gaps.

In September 2020, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded CIRED and partners, Egerton University and AgUnity, a $250,000 one-year project to develop a smartphone app using blockchain technology that addresses inefficiencies in AIV value chains in Eastern Kenya. 

The app will result in improved trust and transparency, means to verify transactions and enforce contracts, increased access to market information, and greater bargaining power. Consumers will, in turn, benefit from lower prices, increased supply, and more information about AIV food safety and preparation. 

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The research team will explore how the app assists groups such as women, youth, and low-income consumers that typically face constraints in accessing economic or nutritional benefits from value chain improvements.

Jessica Agnew, a former CIRED graduate assistant and new assistant director for Research, Operations, and Program Management, played a key role in developing the proposal, in collaboration with Ralph Hall, principal investigator (PI) and associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs. 

Agnew, who will serve as the project’s co-PI, said, “We look forward to this opportunity to bring AIV actors such as farmers, consumers, women, and youth into the forefront of this innovation. This project opens the door for new applications of blockchain technology, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa’s horticultural produce sector, where it has the potential to increase access to nutrition and to enable farmers to trade in high-value markets.” 

Ralph Hall, Agnew’s former committee chair, added, “The idea for this project emerged during Jessica’s Ph.D. research that focused on the potential for market-based approaches to increase diet diversity among households in Nampula, Mozambique. The Kenya project presents an opportunity to evaluate the perceived value of a transparent farmer-to-buyer platform that is designed with input from all actors in the AIV supply chain. While blockchain technology has been used to increase transparency and traceability in food supply chains in developed economies, this research holds great potential to identify how the technology could be successfully deployed in an emerging economy.” 

Using a co-design process, the Virginia Tech team, Egerton University in Kenya, and AgUnity, an Australian-based private sector firm, will conduct research on bottlenecks in AIV value chains in the Kakamega region with a focus on the four most popular Kenyan indigenous vegetables – cowpea, amaranth, spider plant, and nightshade. The team will leverage AgUnity’s blockchain-backed application to further address the needs of value chain actors in conducting their respective activities.

Agnew added that the app offers new hope for Kenya’s smallholder farmers, low-income consumers, women, and youth that often the benefit the least from economic and nutritional gains in the value chain. “Initial research will focus on engaging youth ages 29 and under and women to ensure that they are able to benefit from gains realized by the app.” 

Research has shown that Kenya ranks high among users of smartphones globally, thus increasing the project’s scalability throughout the country.