Friday, August 12, 2011

Using ICTs in Agriculture

A story of an African woman working in the agricultural sector, who has used ICTs in her professional businesses”
By Hudson Wereh

Somehow, despite all our hopes, dreams and efforts, life becomes a train wreck. We may or may not have had an inkling of the impeding doom. Perhaps we were in denial or maybe completely oblivious of what was swirling around just out of sight. We may have seen it coming but did not realize its speed or hoped against hope it wouldn’t happen. But here we are, we can’t undo the mess or change a few details to lessen the severity of the impacts. Somehow though, we need to move on, but how? Regarding the Kenya’s infamous 2007-8 post election violence in Kenya,
such was the case for Prof. Ruth Aniang’o, the woman who believes that so long as she is still alive and healthy, she must be a voice for the hungry child; she says: “one hungry child is one too many---it just is not right.” She also believes in the power of education and ICTs. Her NGO’s office and an Agrovet from which the community was accessing farm inputs at a subsidized price in Butere were vandalized and reduced to ashes. It was so daunting that she almost threw in the towel.
This is her community and she really wants to change it, coupled with her Christian values, she decided to soldier on and help the people. Her solace particularly came from Luke 4:24 which states a prophet is not honored in his hometown. Like Martin Luther King Junior again, she had a dream. A dream that kept her going, a dream that couldn’t be shattered not only by looters but even Lucifer himself, a dream to see her fellow women liberated from dependence on their male chauvinistic husbands and reclaim their position in development. Following that unprecedented event, Ruth moved her base to Mbale as a way of moving on.
Born 65 years ago, at a glance she would pass for your ordinary village woman but on the contrary, she is one of kenya’s greatest women. Having started her academic journey five decades ago, Hon. Professor Ruth Aniang’o holds a PhD in Food Science and Nutrition. She has taught at several universities in Kenya and currently she is adjunct professor at Tufts University in USA. Ruth served in the capacity of nominated Member of Parliament and shadow minister of education in the 9th parliament till her resignation in 2007 – becoming our Mandela. Ruth, my hero, serves on international boards such as the Gates Foundation Agriculture Strategy Advisory Committee and MONSANTO Biotechnology Advisory Council. Ruth has no formal training in either agriculture or ICT, but as fate would have it, while in parliament she spent considerable amount of time talking about food security, malnutrition and hunger issues making it inevitable for her to start looking at agriculture. As a new born baby starts suckling by default, Ruth also found herself embracing ICTs and assimilating them in her works. Ruth does consultancies and other jobs for her own support and therefore the businesses for which she is being authored here are purely meant to benefit the community.
Nutritionists deal with the food available. Looking at its quality and who produces it (women farm for food while men farm for money), coupled with her need to give back to the community, Ruth founded a non government organization (NGO) called Rural Outreach Program (ROP) in 1992. Through it, she seeks to support resource-poor farmer groups, mostly women, engaged in production and agro-processing at the community level. The NGO has elevated the status of women in this otherwise male chauvinistic community and improved incomes in 500 households. She has two motorbikes which are used for extension services. She also founded an African Journal of Food and Nutritional Sciences (AJFNS) to offer a platform for publishing food and nutrition related works. Her interest in agriculture though took charge of her and she changed the journal to African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND) to see the inclusion of agricultural articles. AJFAND is an online peer reviewed journal as a capacity building initiative to help budding African scientists publish their work and share their opinions and research findings on the world stage.
Professors Ruth Aniang’o believes no single remedy is panacea to solving all her problems and neither is ICT the magic bullet for solving all the problems afflicting the agricultural sector. However, she’s quick to add that ICT’s contribution to alleviating these woes is paramount.
Thanks to the internet, Ruth hosts her journal online and many people can access it – scientists posting there their work have increased visibility. The peer-reviewing can be done from anywhere, anytime and thus economically. the internet has also enhanced accountability, people can easily track their articles because submitted articles undergoes several stages before publishing which are all online. Financially, nearly 300$ in distribution and 7000$ in publishing costs have been saved.
In her endeavors to provide means of getting information, Ruth has set up five computers in a room where using Safaricom modems, farmers can access internet aided by Thomas - one of her information officers. Ruth spends nearly 15,000 shillings per month on this but she says its nothing compared to the benefits they accrue from the venture. Through posting on The Organic Farmer’s (TOF) facebook page, facebook chatting, skyping and emailing, farmers exchange experiences and good practices with colleagues in other places which has led to an increase in productivity.
“Solutions to my farm problems are just an SMS away.” and “I simply take my mobile phone, notify my customers on available vegetables via SMS and there I go, orders start streaming in.” are some of the farmers’ confessions with regards to the usefulness of their phones. In addition to some farmers having their own mobile phones, Ruth has given 50 group leaders a mobile phone worth 5,000/= to each one of them. It was aimed at facilitating communication and now there is a great reduction in physical field visits by her officers and this has led to a further decrease in transportation costs. The 20,000 shillings she used to spent on motorbike fuel was halved, 200 bags of indigenous vegetables are shipped to Nairobi selling – up from 90 bags and monitoring of group activities has been eased.
On their phones, farmers have mobile cow calendars courtesy of Greendreams Ltd and a ROP partner Infonet-Biovision. Farmers are notified on vital days of their cows’ gestation period, address of the nearest vet and also they are prompted on best dairy practices that result in healthier and more productive cows. The app makes it possible to keep milk and breeding records. For all these services, the farmer has to simply SMS the word iCow to 5024 to register and get instructions on how to get specific information at 5 shillings only. In cases where Ruth wants to give financial assistance to these farmers, the M-PESA service by Safaricom comes in handy; she sends them money through their phones.
Ruth has also provided small green laptops popularly known as OLPC (One Laptop per Child) equipped with agricultural information from She says this information is downloaded into these laptops to cut on the cost of accessing the internet (2 shillings per minute) and enable the information to be accessed from the fields – OLPCs are strong and can be used in strong light. Mrs. Nyangweso says, “…from the small laptops, I have learnt how to make compost from vegetables and bananas and now, I don’t need to buy fertilizers from the market. The money I earn from the vegetables, pumpkins and bananas can be used to pay school fees”.
A vernacular radio station “Mulembe FM” which airs in the local Luhya language has not been left behind either, farmers under the umbrella of ROP have also been staying updated on the organization’s activities through the Radio. For its own news purposes, the radio has been covering the NGO’s activities for free but in some cases Ruth has had to pay. The radio also airs prices of farm produce in different areas something that helps these farmers in finding good prices for their produce.
 Communication is an essential ingredient in the success of any endeavor, in this context, ICTs are the main drivers. Their role is paramount, they are panacea for ensuring correct and real-time access to agricultural information and this, Ruth seem to have grasped so well. Cell phone ownership increased sevenfold, from 9% in 2002 to 65% in 2010. Computer usage increased in three years from 12% to 23% between 2007 and 2010 (Kachwanya, 2010). Given the efforts being exuded by the ICT Board in helping to establish and maintain Telecentres across the country, the next few years will be interesting to watch.
According to a literacy survey conducted in 2006, about 38.5% of the adult population is illiterate. Concerted efforts should therefore be directed towards education this segment of the population. Maybe someone should declare ICTs a human right? Imagine the number of lives ICT has helped save. There are good signs though; Ruth’s ICT usage can be replicated across the region and across other sectors. Our motto should be, “Computers have no value unless our village mama can operate one in the village.” This forms the greatest challenge and if overcome, we are going to solve many problems as a country.   
4.      Kenya National Adult Literacy Survey
5.      Joyce N, Kebithi (2006). Measuring Literacy. Kenya national Adult Literacy survey

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