A bridge between farmers and the web
27 August 2012
Kenyan farmer, Zack Matere, searches the web for useful agricultural information, then posts it on notice boards around his community helping other producers to improve their crops.
Zack Matere is not your average farmer. Having studied for a diploma in business administration at Eldoret Polytechnic in Kenya, he ventured into white collar jobs, which he quickly abandoned to concentrate on what many people his age regarded as a poor man’s job: farming.
He started farming vegetables, and first encountered ICTs when a strange disease attacked his potatoes. Not even the agricultural officer could diagnose the cause. Zack’s farm is in Segereya village, near Eldoret, a long way from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. He had learned a little about computers and the internet at college, so Zack cycled 10 km from his home to the nearest internet café. He opened the Google search engine and typed ‘potato diseases.’
He found that ants had attacked his potatoes, and also found a cheap and environmentally friendly cure: spraying wood ash. Amazed by the results, Zack returned to the internet café and, after a few clicks, he was able to find a buyer for his potatoes.
Zack invested in a 3G-enabled phone that he could use to look for information online from the comfort of his home. Zack is lucky, he is internet literate, but thousands of farmers in his area do not even know how to use cell phones. Zack has therefore become the bridge between these farmers and the internet. Zack pays 50 Kenyan shillings (0.50 euro) everyday to access the internet from his phone, an amount that is beyond the reach of his fellow farmers.
Zack has tried to bring these farmers the information that they so desperately need. The initial challenge was to identify the most effective and inexpensive platform to reach and interact with a community of 10,000 people within a radius of 50 km. He came up with the idea for the network of notice boards, an initiative he calls Leo Pamoja, Swahili for ‘together today’.
Zack gets agricultural-related information, including details on how to make crops flourish, farming methods or market opportunities, and translates the message into the local language. He puts the message on paper, then hangs it up in public places, such as churches or the chief’s camp, frequented by many of the farmers. For example, Zack read on the internet that a cartel of potato buyers were buying potatoes from farmers using 130 kg bags instead of the usual 110 kg sacks but were not paying the farmers the correct price.
Zack has also used the camera on his phone to take pictures of people encroaching a nearby forest, which is one of the biggest water catchment areas in Kenya. Such encroachment could affect the water supply in the area. He posted pictures of the encroachers on Facebook, which has more than 1.5 million users in Kenya. Zack also talked to officials from the NGO, Forest Action Network, and presented them with the photographic evidence, prompting the organisation to build a fence round the water catchment area.
Elated by the impact that the use of ICTs had on the farmers and in conservation of the environment, Zack has now started a pilot fish-farming project, which has received funding from the Kenyan government as part of an economic stimulus programme to dig 100 fish ponds in each constituency. In Likuyani District, where Zack comes from, however, the new fish farmers have been grappling with problems such as algae feeding on the fingerlings in the pond.
Using a computer donated by an NGO, and linked to the internet via GPRS, farmers working on the project monitor satellite images of the constituency’s fishponds. The centre also doubles as a resource centre where farmers come to seek information on various aspects of fish farming.
Although agriculture makes up 30% of Kenya’s GDP, and employs 80% of Kenyans, mass media still only caters to a general audience. Farming issues are only aired when they are a matter of national interest when, for example, there is a sugar shortage or a new horticultural law has been introduced. Even if more time was allocated, not all the thousands of questions the farmers have can be addressed. This is where the internet is useful, where farmers can make enquiries into specific problems.
ICTs could revolutionise agriculture in Kenya if technological literacy is encouraged. Currently, around four million Kenyans know how to use internet. This number could increase rapidly since the government recently introduced the ambitious ‘digital villages’ plan to bring more internet cafes to rural areas. Embracing ICTs promises good returns for farmers, especially through increased market opportunities and more efficient business operations.