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Kenyan farmers discover the Internet

October 20, 2010

Karatina Town seems a long way from Nairobi, Kenya's capital city of three million people. Yet, 100 km away, about a two-hour drive on the country's tattered roads, the town is the food basket of the city.

At dawn, while Kenya turns in its sleep, Peter Kimani is awake and on his way to Karatina Central Farmers Market, the largest produce market in Eastern Africa, to dispose of his produce. The onions, tomatoes, cabbages, and avocadoes will later be transported to Wakulima Market in Nairobi, the largest wholesale farmers market in East Africa, with about 10 000 traders.

Kimani is a smallholder farmer in Kirinyaga District, central Kenya, an area endowed with rich soils and rainfall. However, its large population has forced the subdivision of land into smallholder plots, which has eventually depressed the area's productivity. The father of three makes his living selling fruit and vegetables to the larger Nairobi. He has a one-acre plot. He does not earn a lot of money; on a typical day, he takes home US$5.

"Prices are not good here. They have been bad for a while," he says. Indeed, the price of horticultural products has been depressed for a while at Karatina's Central Farmers Market. Yet, by the time Kimani's produce reaches the Wakulima market, the prices will have ballooned by about 40%.

Intermediaries, the bane of producers

As a whole, prices are not depressed in Kenya. The rainy season that signals increased supply has not arrived and the cost of living has not changed since 1997, when the World Bank suspended US$205 million in structural adjustment aid to Kenya to protest perceived corruption and bad governance. The issue is that "most producers are hardly aware of the going prices. The food comes from the rural districts where farmers cannot dictate the prices because they do not bring their produce here," says Wakulima Market's trade superintendent, Charles Mwita.

Kimani's predicament is hardly surprising. He is among thousands of peasant farmers exploited by brokers and resellers who take advantage of the ignorance of unsuspecting producers. "They have exploited farmers for a long time," says Edith Adera, Senior Program Specialist with the International Development Research Centre's (IDRC) ACACIA initiative in Nairobi.

Adera is part of a team of researchers involved in a project to improve the livelihoods of farmers by increasing prices and productivity. The project is called DrumNet, a name that carries both cultural and historical connotations. Before radio and telephone technology mollified Africa in the early 1960s, just before Kenya's independence, the drum was the tool used to broadcast news in a community or from one homestead to the other. The net is the abbreviation for Internet, the latest technology to colonize the flow and exchange of information the world over.

www. replaces the drumbeat

"The drum was used to pass information in Africa, whether the news was about a funeral or a fire outbreak," says Adera. "We are now moving from the drum to the Internet, from the African drum to the latest technology."

The researchers believe that the provision of financial, marketing, and information services to peasant farmers will result in increased market access and an enhanced ability to make informed marketing decisions. This will eventually have an impact on overall market efficiency — and finally help reduce poverty. DrumNet plans to offer its members a range of for-fee services, including market linkages, real-time market price information, the coordination of produce transport, and group purchase of farm inputs, as well as information on leading farming techniques.

This IDRC-sponsored project aims to demonstrate a link between the provision of information and business services to smallholder farmers and increases in market prices, farm incomes, and household incomes. According to Adera, DrumNet will be a window to the export market. Currently, smallholder farmers have had no access to the East African market, for the obvious reason that intermediaries often determine prices. "The long-term goal of DrumNet is to scale the network throughout Kenya and throughout the East African region," she says. Ultimately, the research will assess the economic impact of its services on its member farmers, she adds.

Information kiosks

DrumNet, a project of the non governmental agency PRIDE AFRICA, will cost CA$300 000 to implement. It is conducted jointly by IDRC, the University of Nairobi's Institute for Development Studies (IDS), the Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences at Harvard University, and the Department of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Participating researchers from Harvard and Princeton designed this experiment, which will be carried out by IDS throughout 2004.

According to Adera, DrumNet has established what has come to be known as rural "Information Kiosks" (makeshift shops) in the Kirinyaga District of Central Kenya to provide free information to local smallholder farmers about the current prices of commodities on a daily basis. These information kiosks are equipped with computers that track retail, wholesale, and export prices and make them available to a representative group of farmers involved in the research.

DrumNet has also established Market Center Offices (MCOs) in both Nairobi's Central Farmers Market and in Karatina. Research assistants and information brokers — who go out each day to sample commodity prices, which they post on the net and bulletin boards in the market centre offices — manage the kiosks. "The information brokers have a strict code of ethics to ensure that they are not unscrupulous," says Adera.

According to Vince Groh, project manager, the first group of 180 farmers has been identified based on certain characteristics, such as farm size, income levels, and crops grown. But by the end of the year, the project will draw 500 farmers from throughout Kirinyaga District. DrumNet will also work with a special group of farmers who will participate in a carefully controlled experiment throughout 2004. "These farmers will be randomly assigned to either a treatment group or control group. DrumNet will begin marketing to members of the treatment group and offering services to those that join. The control group will not learn of DrumNet, nor will they be allowed to use DrumNet's services."

During the course of the research, the farmers — among them Peter Kimani — will be observed to note any changes — improvements or otherwise — in their productivity and revenue. After the year-long experiment, all participating farmers will be interviewed to assess changes in farm productivity, market prices, and household income.

An epochal revolution

The use of the Internet to track down prices for the benefit of smallholder farms is extraordinary in Kenya, although it has been tried successfully in neighbouring Uganda and Zambia.

The Internet came to Kenya in 1993 through a donor-funded project, the African Regional Centre for Computing (ARCC). Commercial Internet service mushroomed barely a year ago, but it has really had an impact on the lives of the 700 000 Kenyans with access. Compared to the entire population — 30 million — this access is rather limited. In the rural areas especially, this technology is hardly there. Even in places where it can be accessed, it is quite out of reach for many, mostly farmers.

For Kimani and other farmers countrywide, DrumNet is epoch-making. Ignorance has pushed them to squalid conditions, and left them trapped in a vicious cycle of exploitation. Because of bad policies and economic mismanagement, the agricultural sector has slumped in the past two decades. Indeed, during the period 1964-74, agriculture contributed 36.6% of Kenya's GDP, 33.2% in 1974-79, about 29.8% in 1980-89, and 26.2% in 1990-95, according to the National Development Plan 1997-2001. Subsidies and credit schemes that powered the industry in the 1970s and made it the biggest employer are no more as the economy struggles against recession.

The price of exploitation

"Smallholder farmers tend to be exploited because they can ill-afford inputs, because they are small producers who find it costly to individually seek better markets for their produce," says Adera. For Kenyan farmers, the vicious cycle starts with no or inadequate resources to buy inputs (fertilizers, seeds, equipment) and poor market prices. It continues because of the predatory nature of local brokers and resellers: research supported by IDRC has found that these intermediaries, on average, extract one-quarter of the wholesale value of smallholder farmer produce as it is transported and marketed between the farmgate and the wholesale buyer. Finally, the supply chain for agricultural produce is inefficient: produce typically changes hands 3 or 4 times on the way to the market.

With the Internet linking producers to consumers, the farmer is likely to get better value for her/his produce. "The expectation is that DrumNet members will experience increases in household incomes as a result of their interactions with the organization," says Adera. Demonstrating this link conclusively will strongly support the growth of the DrumNet network to other regions of Kenya and the development of similar organizations.

"Our services are aimed at boosting and increasing productivity of high-potential cash crops, particularly those with export potential" says Groh. It will have eliminated intermediaries, who take more than 23% of the wholesale market price. Packaging, grading, market access fees, and transport takes away another 14%. "We are helping to alleviate this problem," says Groh. "Unaware of the going prices and unable to access effective marketing services, farmers have been able to retain only 63% of the proceeds. Add this to the already low productivity of their farms, and it's no wonder they are trapped in a pernicious cycle of poverty."

Change is never easy, but DrumNet researchers hope that this project, once completed, will produce a clearer picture of farmers' productivity and will ultimately rescue them from poverty. For a poor country like Kenya, where the per capita income is less than US$270, DrumNet is a revolution.

Kenyan journalist Ken Opala is the recent Gold Medal winner of the 2003 Natali Prize — one of the world's leading awards for journalists. He is also the winner of International Association of Journalists' 2003 regional prize for Africa.