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March 31, 2010

Kenyan farmer lauds internet as saviour of potato crop

by Will Ross

Kenyan farmer Zack Matere pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket holds it up and takes a couple of photos.

"It seems they have come back and are digging here again."

He is referring to a group of people who have encroached on a water catchment area and are endangering the whole community's water supply.

"When they came before, I took photos of what they were doing, posted them on my Facebook page and was able to get assistance. I got in touch with Forest Action Network and they came back to me quickly saying they would help me protect the catchment area."

This is just one of the ways in which he uses the internet.

Zack is growing tree seedlings on his farm in Seregeya near Eldoret, Kenya, and has managed to triple the price he gets for them thanks to the internet. Not long ago it also helped him discover a cure for his dying potato crop.

"I cycled 10km to the local cyber cafe, Googled "potato disease" and discovered that ants were eating the potato stems. I checked again online and found that one of the solutions was to sprinkle wood ash on the crop."

A few mouse clicks later he was able to find a local buyer for his rescued crop.

"I think I am the only farmer in the area who uses the internet."

Zack says he spends about 50 Kenyan shillings (66 US cents) each day accessing the internet via his mobile phone. This amount is unaffordable for many small-scale farmers, but Mr Matere says he intends to be the link between the internet and the community.

The plan is to set up notice boards in prominent positions such as trading centres and even move them to churches on Sundays. On these boards, called "Seregeya Leo" or Seregeya Today, he plans to post information he gleans from the net on issues such agriculture, health or education which can benefit the community.

It is not just the cost of accessing the internet that he thinks is restricting usage.
There is also a cultural barrier as Mr Matere is not convinced that all people would be content to browse via the phone in the isolation of their homes.

"The internet is quite an individual pursuit. But a noticeboard is more of a group thing. So if I post an item on a noticeboard on potato disease, for example, the community can read it, talk together and come to a decision."

With internet-enabled phones not available to all, we drive to the nearest internet cafe to see how accessible the net is in rural Kenya.

At Soy trading centre there is a shop with four PCs hooked up to the net via a single modem. The manager says about 15 people use the service each day but adds that sometimes the internet is down.

Zack starts clicking away and quickly comes up with the kind of information which he says the community needs to know about.

"Potato farmers dig in for law to block cartels," is the heading of one article.

"There is a cartel that is buying potatoes from the farmers in 130kg bags instead of 110kg sacks and they are paying the same price," notes Mr Matere.

He says he would translate this into Swahili and post it on the noticeboards, to warn people of the scam.

On the veranda of the internet cafe, tailor John Moss is busy pedalling his sewing machine. Despite being so close to the computers he has never used the internet. Noting that the whole world now seems to be accessing the internet, he says he wouldn't mind trying.

"I would use it to get in contact with friends," says Mr Moss. "It can also help me find out what other tailors are doing outside Kenya and learn from them."

Back on the farm, Zack has an idea that might help the 10 to 15 people who have been encroaching on the water catchment area.

"There is a lot of money in tree seedlings or bee hives. So if we can get these young people to use the land in an environmentally [friendly] way, they can get even more money than through farming."

He says he could also help them find a market.

"I have 400 Facebook friends and I think some of them can buy the honey."

"I am now seeing the practicality of the internet here in rural Kenya. The problem is I am the only one. That is why the noticeboard is important. All we need is a bit of relevant information to help us. Once it is made simpler and is more in the local language with more local content, people are going to access the internet here," he predicts.


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