Innovation in Kenya

Innovation in Kenya

IBM’s smart strategies for water management
©IBM Research

Kala Fleming, Ph.D

Water Research Scientist,
IBM Research – Africa.

Agricultural Water Specialist,
Advisory Services, IFC

Water is a subject at the core of productive and sustainable agribusiness. What, in your estimation, are the biggest challenges facing agribusiness today in terms of water management?

Excessive water withdrawals, inefficient water use and pollution are three of the biggest challenges facing agribusinesses today. The growing narrative and concern around water scarcity positions these issues as key challenges that can damage both the brand and profits.

Environmental and social standards and the integration of agribusinesses into the community are incredibly important for IFC.  One of the major reputational challenges that we face as a partner and investor has been around water. How  do you see  the work that you are currently involved in contributing to this?

We leverage big data and analytics to help companies stay one step ahead in managing water-related risks.  Agribusinesses need timely and flexible approaches to handle scarcity and rapid change – in either the environment or political and regulatory landscape.  For example, we help farmers anticipate and respond to drought as well as evaluate and manage watershed vulnerability by informing them about the changes that are occurring in the water table, as adjustments occur due to a multitude of inflows and outflows.  This approach relies heavily on being able to access and analyze accurate data from disbursed areas of land.  We are also looking at how our predictive analytics capabilities can drive the development of more tailored insurance products for both small farmers and larger agribusinesses.

It is a sobering fact that an estimated 50 percent of water used for global agriculture is wasted. How can agribusinesses better address water efficiency issues?

In water-scarce regions, smart strategies for water management, such as precision agriculture can deliver significant competitive advantage. For example, Sun World International, a mid-sized grower based in Bakersfield, CA, used IBM’s predictive analytics to compare the costs of traditional and drip irrigation. The result has been lower water usage and better nourished produce. In the growing of table grapes, targeted use of drip irrigation resulted in a 5% reduction in harvesting costs, a 20% reduction in fuel usage and a 50% increase in yield over the past five years.

How will you be able to deliver these new capabilities?

Many of the services for agribusinesses we’ve discussed will be delivered via cloud, which as your readers know, is a new consumption and delivery model inspired by consumer internet services. IBM is the global leader in cloud with an unmatched portfolio of open cloud solutions that help clients to think, build or tap into it.  The increasing shift across industries to cloud computing is well-documented. Companies are achieving competitive advantage by using software as a service (SaaS) to enhance customer experience, increase collaboration, improve decision making, and increase operational efficiency.

In Kenya, IBM is using big data analytics to create a better understanding of water within networks, such as aquifers, that are largely unseen.  Could you tell us a little more about this project?  And what role does IBM see for itself in improving water use efficiency in Africa?

We’re exploring ways to use data on boreholes and shallow wells gathered by others in the water ecosystem (for example, borehole service providers, government agencies, homeowners) to better understand the health and sustainability of groundwater resources.  We’re digitizing paper records such as borehole completion reports and also developing new mobile apps that can be used to infer borehole information.

The approach we have taken allows average citizens to monitor levels and can reduce the burden on water regulators who steward the resource. Imagine the capability to snap a photo of a borehole rig in your neighborhood, and automatically feed that information to a system that either confirms that the driller has been properly registered or immediately alerts the authorities.  Illegal boreholes, indiscriminate dumping and poorly treated wastewater threaten the health of all who rely on the resource.

This ongoing effort to essentially crowd-source groundwater data can be incredibly helpful during droughts. Response times can be reduced tremendously if the best locations for successful, emergency boreholes can be quickly identified. Ongoing monitoring and analysis also supports early warning and alerting on the boreholes that are at risk of running dry. In some situations, dry boreholes can spark conflict.  Anticipating the locations of these hotspots and prioritizing interventions can save lives.

How could lessons learned in Africa be taken to Asia?

The tools we are developing for Africa are directly applicable to Asia. Across Asia, irrigated agriculture drives groundwater use. Bangladesh, for example, is reported to have more than one million boreholes. India has more than 20 million with a new borehole sunk every six seconds on average.  Groundwater management becomes even more complex when there is a high density of extraction points withdrawing from the same source. The ability to get early warning alerts for quantity and quality become even more urgent in this setting.

Can predictive groundwater analytics really help to turn the tide and improve water use efficiency and resource sustainability in water-scarce continents like Africa?

Studies have shown that economic scarcity is much more of a challenge than physical scarcity.  So water can usually be found, but the infrastructure required to harness it effectively is often lacking. This certainly suggests the potential for technology to help bridge the infrastructure gap.

What is your advice for agribusinesses faced by the challenge of water management? How do they access the integrated tools they need to monitor, manage and anticipate the risks?

Embrace and leverage technology to stay ahead of the game and give me a call if they need help doing that!

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