A service to the community

A Kenyan resource centre uses ICTs to gather and share agricultural information

Miguel Raimilla

A resource centre in the west of Kenya adapts its information services to the needs of the community, with ICTs playing a major role in gathering and sharing information.

Ugunja Community Resource Centre (UCRC) was founded in 1988, and registered as an NGO in 2004. It serves the Siaya, and neighbouring counties, of west Kenya. Poverty in these parts of the country has been increasing over the years, especially in the low-lying districts where rainfall levels are low and soil quality is poor. UCRC is basically a grassroots organisation, providing a community hub for information on agriculture, environmental conservation, human rights and advocacy issues.  

 The centre offers internet access to people living in the neighbouring communities, via a 3G connection over the cell phone network. The connection is reliable, and provides enough bandwidth for UCRC staff to carry out their work writing e-mails and for visitors to browse the web.

To help people in the community become more familiar with technology, the centre organises computer literacy courses, based on Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential curriculum. These are open to everyone, but are mainly intended for women and young people living in the area. UCRC also has a traditional library, housing a variety of collections, but with a particular focus on publications related to agriculture.

All of the centre’s activities and information services are initiated and developed according to the needs of the people living in the area. The growing popularity of cell phones in recent years means UCRC staff now assist people in making mobile money transfers, getting agricultural market information via SMS, relaying news stories, and connecting farmers with potential partners in transport, processing and marketing.

UCRC has already used FrontlineSMS – free software for sending multiple SMSes – in an education programme delivering information to people living with HIV/Aids. Trainers at the centre are now formalising a similar process that allows farmers to learn agricultural techniques via SMS.

In the last few years, the region has experienced low and erratic rainfall that has resulted in very poor crop yields. The production of maize, which is the main staple food for the farmers, has seriously declined. Currently, farmers can only produce enough maize to last three months. For the other nine months of the year, the community has to rely on maize coming from beyond the local area, bought from the main market centres. The lack of money to buy extra maize results in real hardship for many families for those nine months.

Equally, the quality of soils in Siaya has been seriously depleted due to continuous tillage and poor farming practices over many years. Research carried out by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in the district in 1998 established that Siaya soils lack nitrogen and phosphorus, which are important nutrients required for plant growth and good crop yields.

Many farmers do not have enough money to buy the inorganic fertilisers required to improve the soil and crop productivity. They also need more information and skills to raise crop yields through organic farming techniques.

Regenerate

To mitigate these challenges, UCRC has been promoting farming technologies and crops that can survive with comparatively little moisture. Such crops include sorghum, sweet potatoes and cassava. The organisation encourages farmers to plant high-value trees and to experiment with indigenous vegetable gardening. For example, farmers are growing fruit plants, including banana, pineapple and mango in income generation projects.

These initiatives are part of the centre’s sustainable agriculture project, which has been in existence since the establishment of the organisation. The activities of the programme mainly work towards building farmers’ capability to help them cope with changes in the climate.

Although the centre is based in the town of Ugunja, UCRC still has to be able to provide information to the farmers in the wider area. The organisation has, therefore, developed a number of strategies to ensure that farmers from farther afield can participate in its programmes. UCRC provides supportive extension services, where the field officers visit farmers to give them advice. Another way is through established community groups, where the organisation delivers training courses as requested by the farmers during their scheduled meeting times. The other training courses and workshops provided are based on an assessment of the farmers’ needs and available resources.

The centre also organises on-farm demonstrations and tries out new agricultural techniques. In these instances, UCRC works with research institutions, including Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), as a way to bridge the research information gap between the farmers and the researchers.

As part of this, the farmers are now trained in ‘farmer-led documentation’ (FLD) techniques, where the farmers record their progress and local innovations. This means that the farmers have been trained to use digital cameras, audio recorders, video cameras, drawings and report writing skills to capture and store data. UCRC staff work with the farmers and offer technical support during regular visits to the farms.

Distribution

Documentation has been especially important for the testing of new techniques to cope with the changing climate. Agricultural researchers are helping farmers to adopt and devise methods to mitigate the effects of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. FLD is one way of making the information gathered on new techniques available to more people, and of facilitating data sharing in a short period of time.

The information gathered is always shared in organised community meetings, where farmers can present their findings by showing the photographs, reading out reports, or even through songs and participatory educational exercises. The members then discuss the information, and try to find solutions to problems and consider methods to ensure the lessons learned are taken up by the broader farming community.

UCRC also uses community learning and resource centres. These are smaller meeting areas in the villages where groups of people can share information on new farming methods. These centres usually do not have the same ICT equipment as the main centre, although they do have libraries for printed documents and books. In the course of their regular visits, however, UCRC staff take their laptops to show digital presentations or videos, many of which can also be viewed and copied to cell phones.

Visitors to the community centres can ask questions, which, if they cannot be answered immediately, are noted on specially developed forms and forwarded to UCRC or other agricultural extension providers, for feedback. The process is similar to how many question-and-answer services operate.

To ensure that the skills acquired through the training courses and other activities will continue to be used and shared in the long term, UCRC has trained ‘master farmers’, who can act as mentors and trainers in their local area. Farmer groups also have training on organisational methods and a variety of management skills, including subjects such as group dynamics.

The sustainable agriculture programme within UCRC has, over the years, helped to introduce and promote new farming technologies to counter perennial climatic challenges, and improve food security in the areas. The organisation’s work goes beyond being simply a resource centre to provide vital capacity for sustaining the livelihoods of people within the community.

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Charles O Ogada is programme manager, adaptive research and information technology, at the Ugunja Community Resource Centre

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Related links

World Agroforestry Centre

Kenya Agricultural Research Institute

Kenya Forestry Research Institute

Microsoft Unlimited Potential

FrontlineSMS

ICT Update article on FrontlineSMS

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12 June 2012

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)