Zack Matere strolls in his four-acre piece of land in Seregeya near Eldoret checking the condition of his potatoes, with a panga in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Once in a while he takes pictures with his phone to share with his fellow farmers. For Matere has reaped handsome dividends by using the internet in farming, saving his last potato crop and now opening new markets.
Last year, a strange disease invaded his potatoes, his biggest source of livelihood. “I knew I had to do something before I could lose my entire crops.”
“I knew there was a way I could rescue them. I cycled 10 kilometres to the local cyber café, Googled ‘potato disease,’ and discovered that ants were eating the potato stems,” he says. On the same website, Matere found that the cure for his potato disease was to sprinkle wood ash on the crop. Two months later the crops were back to shape and Matere knew it was time to invest fully in the Internet.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) has introduced a new farming technology for breeding multiple disease free potato tubers in a bid to achieve a widespread take-off in productivity for the country’s potato farmers.
Simple sheets of plastic are providing a cheap alternative to expensive and harmful insecticides in fighting potato weevils, delivering higher yields, and paying extra dividends in environmental and biodiversity gains.
A contraption invented by a local agricultural economist is using mirrors to concentrate the sun onto soils to clean out pathogens and diseases and end the practice of soil roasting, which is destroying Kenyan forestry.
The solar concentrator, made with a bicycle wheel, a ball of string and a range of mirrors arranged in a semi-circle, concentrates a huge amount of sunlight onto a container of soil. “We have managed to prove that temperatures go up to 3,000 degrees on the concentrator which are enough to kill any pathogen in the soil no matter how stubborn,” said Mr Peter Mwathi, the inventor of the solar concentrator.
The majority of the eliminated pathogens are the nematodes that cause crop wilts such as potato and banana wilt, which are some of the biggest diseases facing farmers. A 2011 survey by regional farmers' NGO Bridgenet Africa found that potato blight was among the major causes of the potato shortage in the country last year, which saw a 60 per cent increase in potato prices as farmers turned to pesticides that did nothing to improve the situation.
This was happening against the backdrop of continued logging of trees by farmers for wood to roast the soil. The traditional practice has been to lay wood across the soils and burn it, to eradicate the pathogens.
“In Nyeri, where the uptake of the concentrator is encouraging, we have seen farmers now moving away from deforestation, which was a very serious problem in the area,” said Mwathi.
Leah Nduire a coffee farmer in Karatina, has used the concentrator for the last one year, after she got a warning from the government for felling a huge number of trees to run her coffee farm. “In this area, you definitely have to roast the soil, because it is very easily degraded, difficult and expensive to regenerate. I felled every tree I could get to roast the soil until I received warnings and summons from forestry officials. So you can imagine my relief when I heard of the solar concentrator,” she said. Leah says she has also saved 50 per cent of her labour costs by using the concentrator.
The downside with the concentrator, however, has been its price, at currently Sh20,000, which is prohibitive for many farmers, even though Mr. Mwathi allows payment in installments. In Nyeri county, where the concentrator was introduced, only 15 farmers out of over 100,000 who know about the concentrator have yet bought it. “The amount is really small considering the return and savings that one gets from using the concentrator. But since farmers have expressed so much interest in the concentrator, but are held back by funding we are exploring other tangible options to make it readily available,” said Mwathi.
Already, he has started training the youth in the area on how to make the device. The Ministry of Youth Affairs has also approached him with an interest in supporting his venture. “Since I have been doing it alone and sourcing for the materials on my own, I have been forced to charge that price, but if this training picks up well, we will definitely lower the cost to farmers.”
Mwathi says if the training moves according to plan, the price will come down from the current Sh20000 to Sh10,000. “I know how badly the farmers need this technology and hope by yearend it will be accessible to as many farmers as possible,” he said.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
Using the net again, he found a local buyer for his rescued crop, and invested in an internet enabled phone that he now uses to get information on farming, spending roughly Sh50 a day. This amount is unaffordable to many small-scale farmers, but Matere says he intends to be the link between the internet and the community. He believes he is a bit of a pioneer. “I think I am the only farmer in the area who uses the Internet,” he says.
He shares the information with other farmers in the community by posting it on local community notice boards called "Seregeya Leo" or Seregeya Today, strategically placed in positions like trading centers, Chief’s offices and churches on Sundays. “The Internet is quite an individual pursuit. But a notice board is more of a group thing. So if I post an item on a notice board on potato disease, for example, the community can read it, talk together and come to a decision.”
One example of the kind of intelligence Matere is able to glean from the Internet were reports of cartels deceiving farmers by buying potatoes in over-large 130 kg bags instead of 110 kg bags. Matere takes this information and translates it into Swahili and local language and posts it on community notice boards.
Matere also has to fend off other people looking to use his community’s water supply, which he has done by photographing interlopers with his mobile phone and then posting the photographs on social networking sites, his favourite being Facebook, where he has discovered the unrivalled potential to market his farming and that of his fellow farmers.
“When they came before, I took photos of what they were doing, posted them on my Facebook page and was able to get assistance,” he said.
“I got in touch with Forest Action Network (http://www.fankenya.org/) and they came back to me quickly saying they would help me protect the catchment area.”
He has also discovered there are more profitable ways to make money for farmers especially through the social networking sites.
“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 environmental way, they can get even more money than through farming. I have 400 Facebook friends and I think some of them can buy the honey.”
When the BBC crew heard Marete’s inspiring story, visited him and profiled his story on their programmes, Marete got calls from those involved in environmental affairs globally. One volunteer even offered Marete a computer to save him the long distances and continue learning from the comfort of his house.
“It was one of my biggest breakthroughs in my endeavour to improve the livelihoods of my people. It inspired me to work hard to find solutions to the many factors that affect farming in this area, because my people have been perishing for lack of information,” says Marete.
Mr. Matere has also been involved in an ambitious programme to improve the livelihoods of his people and protect the girl child. The project dubbed mothers and daughters targets young girls who finish Form Four as they wait to join institutions of higher learning.
Mr. Matere in partnership with people of good will give each girl and the mother chicken to rear and sell, which helps the girls get income to pay for their first term in college. “Its not a simple venture, and we have for long grappled with the teething problems of the project. We would like all mothers and their daughters to be onboard but limited resources are chocking our noble project. We hope to get everyone onboard as soon as possible,” Marete says.
The project also involves free computer classes in a small ICT centre that has five computers, courtesy of a local not for profit organization called Awareness development and empowerment organization ADEO, that was approached by Zack to assist the girls.
Matere is philosophical about the future: “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 notice board is important. All we need is a bit of relevant information to help us.”
Matere hopes for the day when information on the net will be translated into languages the locals can understand. That he believes will be the first step in endearing rural Kenyans to the frequently feared technology “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.
For now, however, his mission remains to act as a bridge, and do what he can already do to get information that is ‘out there’ to farmers within his own community.
Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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