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An ALIN approach to learning

Community knowledge centres help rural farming communities access market information and share knowledge (© ALIN)
Community knowledge centres help rural farming communities access market information and share knowledge
© ALIN

In Ng'arua, a remote village in Kenya's Rift Valley province, smallscale farmers may now sell their produce directly through e-marketing. Thanks to the use of internet technology, farmers in this semi-arid region, some 350 kms north west of the capital Nairobi, are now cutting out the middlemen and selling their maize to the highest bidder. This is thanks to Sokopepe, an online commodity marketing platform developed by the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), an NGO working in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Farmers become members of the local Maarifa (Swahili for knowledge) centre, established by ALIN to give rural farming communities in remote areas access not only to market information, but also to share knowledge; they learn new farming techniques, use of computers and internet, and can access information on weather and climate change. "Farmers also access knowledge through reading books and materials we stock in the centres, learn how to document information, how to use video technology and ipods, and even how to download and post information on the internet," says Susan Mwangi, ALIN's communications manager. "With farmers accessing information they need from the internet and materials provided absolutely free, the centres have become very popular."

The reach of Sokopepe

Sokopepe may end up being the most popular of all the activities being undertaken by Maarifa centres, because of the direct and immediate benefits farmers get. In Ng'arua, where the Sokopepe is being piloted before being rolled out to the rest of the region, the field officer and a community knowledge facilitator, usually a member of the local community, are equipped with a Windows-based mobile phone directly linked to the Maarifa network. They move round the village keying in data on what and how much produce farmers have, information that is relayed to the Sokopepe portal, building a database on produce available and prices quoted. Buyers who have registered as members of the Sokopepe platform are able to log onto to the web and obtain information on what is available and to make bids, quoting the quantities they wish to buy. "When the information (bids) is relayed back to the centre the commodity is picked by the buyer and payment is made often by M-Pesa (Kenya's popular mobile money transfer service) for distribution to members," says Mwangi.

Maarifa centres are run by a field officer, who assists communities to access information they need (© ALIN)
Maarifa centres are run by a field officer, who assists communities to access information they need
© ALIN

In this way, farmers are able to negotiate better prices due to economies of scale where traders buy in bulk as opposed to moving from home to home buying in small quantities before filling a truck. "The response so far is very good with over 500 farmers now benefiting and we intend to make it even better by ensuring that farmers are able to track commodity price movements in far off markets," adds Mwangi.

Maarifa centres in action

Maarifa centres are run by a field officer, who assists communities to access information they need and teaches them computer applications and internet use, and liaises with focal groups to ensure that first-hand information on new developments quickly reaches farmers. Being located in remote places where facilities are minimal, the centres are hosted by local NGOs or government offices. Where it is difficult to get a host, ALIN hires premises in a relationship that Susan describes as complimentary. "Often government extension officers spend time in our centres researching various issues, thanks to our regularly updated library," she adds.

ALIN also publishes 5,000 copies of its quarterly magazine Baobab with farmers, experts and policymakers contributing articles. New information on policy or technology is simplified so farmers understand it. "Sometimes we use illustrations on posters which we post on notice boards and distribute to farmers, especially with more complex subjects like climate change," says Mwangi. Weather and climate information is obtained from the government metrological department and UN agencies, while information about adaptation mechanisms including water harvesting methods, damming, new crop varieties and appropriate breeds and stocking levels are obtained from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), among other research institutions.

Further outreach

ALIN has been re-packaging information on ipods and training women to use them in village women's group meetings (© ALIN)
ALIN has been re-packaging information on ipods and training women to use them in village women's group meetings
© ALIN

Exchange programmes are at the heart of learning promoted by ALIN and farmers travel to learn how things are done elsewhere. A few members have also attended international forums on agriculture and climate issues, returning equipped with a wealth of knowledge. Challenges however remain, particularly in areas where women have problems accessing information because men have to give them permission to attend gatherings or men opt to attend such meeting while the women stay at home. To respond, ALIN has been re-packaging information on ipods and training women to use them in village women's group meetings.

With five computers in each Maarifa centre, local youth use them to train themselves and spend hours on the internet. With such success, ALIN plans to increase the number of centres across East Africa to 150 by 2015, part of the organisation's 2010-2015 strategic plan.

Written by: Maina Wararu

Date published: January 2011

 

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It is an inspiring article. This just proves that ICT is no ... (posted by: Masiga Wafula)

 

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