Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Young farmers respond to climate change via social media

By Caleb Kemboi

Julius Cheruiyot checking on the new update on his mobile handset in his farm
Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County, Rift Valley, Kenya— Julius Cheruiyot dropped out of class eight and plunged into farming business as that was the only better option available for him. He was 16 years then. His plight was due to lack of school fees.

Cheruiyot’s father, John Kirarei is a peasant farmer. He did not have enough money to support his 10 children go through education.

Cheruiyot was unable to get formal employment because he did not have any training. He worked in his father’s farm; taking care of livestock in Ngeria, Uasin Gishu County, Rift Valley Region.

Today, Cheruiyot, 32, is a happy father of three who can afford to feed and educate his family by tending the land.

But over the past 10 years as a subsistence farmer, he has seen drastic change in climate that is adversely impacting the source of his livelihood; from having low rainfall during planting season and high rainfall during harvesting season, made him receive low yields or none at all. 

Cheruiyot and other young farmers like him are now using social media to combat the unpredictability of the weather.

Standing on his five-acre plot of land, Cheruiyot pulls out a mobile phone handset, clicks a Facebook tab, and logs in to the facebook page of Young Volunteers for the Environment (YVE) to update himself on the latest about the environment and climate change.

“Through the social media it has assisted us a lot, the information we receive, we can now know the right time [to] plant our crops, because sometimes we realize it’s short rain not long rain and end up incurring losses (if we don’t take the right action)” he says.

Changing weather patterns in recent years have affected most farmers in Kenya and the Eastern Africa region.

“I meet a group of youths in one of the agricultural exhibitions and after a short explanation I decided to join the group and since then I have learnt on various aspect of climate change and how to cope with it as a young farmer,” Cheruiyot adds.
There are 10 youthful members (between 18years-35years, according to the Kenyan constitution) of the YVE group in Kenya’s Rift Valley region who have made significant impact to the young farmers through social network. YVE has more than 900 followers on facebook.

These people access information shared on the site, they also have interactive chats about farming online.  

They are creating public awareness on climate change and the environment and how to adapt to rising temperatures in the region, which is known as the country’s bread basket.

YVE is the Kenyan chapter of a pan-African organisation founded in Togo in 2011. The group is concerned about declining agricultural production, which contributes to food insecurity and poverty in the region. Its goal is to help young farmers understand the best way to practise sustainable farming and increase their productivity.

“(YVE) engages youth across the country in environment and climate change issues that make a positive impact in the life of the community by enabling communities to effectively adapt to the effects of the rapidly changing climate,” says Emmanuel Serem, YVE’s president. 

“Most of the young people use social media and we thought that’s the best platform” to reach them, Serem says.

Use of social media networks among young Kenyans is growing rapidly. Most use them for socialising, but YVE sees them as a means to reach young farmers.

Recent changes in weather patterns have affected cereal farmers in parts of the Rift Valley, yet most of them don’t have knowledge of what is going on, said Ken Ruto, leader of the North Rift Theatre Ambassadors located Eldoret town.

The group uses social media to sensitise young people about conservation issues.
“Through social media we have managed to inform young farmers to plant more trees in their farms as a best way to cope with climate change,” said Ruto.

Farmers in the Rift Valley are known for maize and dairy cattle farming. But planting maize every year has proven to be a challenge during this times when the country is experiencing changing weather patterns. The low rains during planting season and heavy rains during harvesting season have proven to be a great challenge to the yields.

For instance there was an outbreak of a disease that affected maize crops in some parts of the Rift Valley region and spread across the country late last year (September 2012). The disease was identified as Maize Lethal Necrotic (MLN) disease caused by a combination of viruses. It was first reported in lower Longisa division of Bomet district in Kericho County in the Rift Valley region. The disease was characterized by yellowing of leaves at 3 feet high, scorching of leaves, wilting and die off.

Researchers from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the Ohio State University (USA) and FERA (UK) established that the disease was transmitted through seeds and maize pests such as thrips, stem borer, rootworms, flea beetles and other insects.

YVE advices farmers on the kinds of crops suitable for a given planting season due to change in climate. Amongst those it recommends are millet, wheat, potatoes and sorghum. The group explains that rotating crops helps rebalance the acidity and alkalinity of the soil and improves its fertility.

“We have been planting maize since colonial time and this has really affected the production,” said Cosmas Biwott. He followed the group’s advice and switched to potatoes, and is delighted with the result. “It’s doing good and I am expecting a bumper harvest,” he laughed.

YVE’s Serem said that his members had educated themselves by attending workshops and conferences organized by environmental organizations, so that they could better inform people who log in to their site.  He says that the response so far has been good.

“We get questions from people wanting to know more about how to adapt to climate change,” Serem says. “Young farmers (are) commenting and asking more questions.”

According to Serem, farmers are in dire need of good information about changing weather patterns because many had previously ascribed superstitious causes to them. Kenya experienced violence after the 2007 general elections. Rift Valley region was one of the most affected with many people losing their lives in the violence and others were displaced. This region is the breadbasket of the country.

Years later, the region has been receiving low yields and people have had superstitions saying this is happening because of the blood that was shed during the violence. 

Serem acknowledges that YVE’s services are not available to everyone. Most farmers who access the service use internet-enabled phones. But farmers in remote areas have difficulty accessing the internet, and not all are well versed in social media.  

Biwott adds that the level of illiteracy among many young rural farmers is high.
“The social sites have really assisted us ... to get more information concerning adaptation (to) climate change, but most of the farmer don’t know to use phones or even read the information,” he said. “That’s a big challenge.”

Cosmas Biwott adds that if the region can have an ICT hub; a centre built and equipped with computers which have internet, farmers could benefit more from the centre by visiting these kinds of groups online for assistance. The group’s president says it’s very important that farmers get information about climate change and planting patterns at the right time.

“Statistics show that eight out of ten people are farmers; therefore we need to embrace togetherness for the good of the food security in the country”.  Serem concludes.

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