By Kagondu Njagi
NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When two university students knocked on the door of Lillian Kanari's organic food shop five years ago seeking work, she realised their web design skills could help her business solve one of its most intractable problems: food waste.
Until then, most orders were placed over the phone - and that resulted in some customers complaining that what had been delivered to their homes was not what they had ordered.
"It cost us a lot in terms of losses and food wastage."
Nowadays, knowing exactly what customers want allows her three small-scale farms to operate more efficiently, and that cuts waste, she said.
"Home deliveries have helped us know our customers' consumption patterns... We have a planting and harvesting calendar right from the farm to enable us to plan what we need for the coming season," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Having a website also means more business, she said: her Kalimoni Greens online shop delivers 200 orders weekly in September-to-March's high season, up from 20 a week previously.
Kanari is one of about 8,000 Kenyan farmers who have gone online in recent years to sell directly to the public - as opposed to selling to intermediaries like market vendors - in a bid to boost sales and reduce food waste, according to the Kenya National Farmers Federation (KENAFF).
Doing so could generate significant sums for the farmers, given that agriculture contributes about a quarter of Kenya's $86 billion GDP, said KENAFF head Mwenda M'Mailutha.
"Most of these are smallholder farmers who rely on agriculture for food and income. Technology can help them in marketing, and avoid middlemen who buy their produce at low prices," he said.
Smallscale farmer Sylvia Kuria's farm in Limuru lies about 30 kilometres (18 miles) northwest of Nairobi, and before she set up her online shop she could sell only to market traders.
That meant narrow profit margins and regular haggling for each order. It also meant some vegetables from her farm would spoil - either en route to the market or while at the market.
Spoilage is a global problem, the U.N.'s Food & Agriculture Organization says, with about one-third of the world's food wasted.
In Kenya, a lack of proper storage facilities post-harvest and at markets means 40 percent of food is wasted before it can be eaten, said Jerome Ochieng', principal secretary at the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology.
The government wants farmers to lower that number - and technology can help, he said, with smart government initiatives that take transactions online, for instance, able to cut costs, eliminate corruption, and increase efficiency and effectiveness.
He said more farmers should make use of digital solutions.
"The agriculture sector in Kenya is expanding at a rate of five percent every year," Ochieng' told a digital farmers conference in May.
"Farmers need to be part of this digital revolution so that they can play a role in ensuring there is no food waste from the agriculture sector," he said.
To that end, Ochieng' said, the government last year launched its 'Big Four Agenda': a plan to boost economic growth by focusing on food security, as well as on affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable health care.
But when it comes to cutting wastage, he said, rural roads remain a challenge: although Kenya's road network has improved, those in rural areas are not yet well developed, which means produce gets damaged in transit.
Kanari said one solution is to open a shop in a central area like Nairobi where farmers can store and distribute their produce. Another, she added, is to partner with established food distributors to help farmers get their produce to such shops.
When it comes to home delivery, she said, using motorbikes rather than trucks gives her store an environmental edge.
"Motorbikes are faster, efficient and will not get stuck in traffic jams where most emissions occur," she said.
Paul Kukubo, a director at the Communications Authority of Kenya, said online shopping not only cuts food waste attributable to post-harvest losses; it also means fewer miles travelled by producers and consumers to and from markets.
"This reduces the amount of carbon emissions that vehicles would have released to the atmosphere for that day," he said.
"This is important especially at this time when Kenya is struggling with increased air pollution in its cities."
Kanari said small retailers like her could do more for the environment by looking at packaging too.
In her case, she works with a group of women in central Kenya who supply about 500 woven baskets a month. Once used for deliveries, the baskets are taken back to the shop then swapped with fresh ones.
"Once (the baskets) get old, they can be used at the farms for other tasks like harvesting produce from there. This helps reduce the amount of waste being dumped in the environment."
(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi. Editing by Zoe Tabary and Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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