Interviews with farmers in Kenya:
the positive vibes

Peter interviewing farmers in Kenya

I am back in Belgium for a few days to work on the post-production of the video interviews we shot in Kenya two weeks ago.

We had a team of three: Bart -the cameraman who also does the video post production-, Jan -the radio reporter from the VRT who did a series on climate change and myself. Plus a local NGO contact and two drivers.

The goal of the interviews, which will also be done in West-Africa and several Asian countries, is to take a snapshot how the farmers in different countries experience the changing weather patterns, and how they adapt to them, or even mitigate the climate changes they anticipate.

Peter interviewing farmers in Kenya

Every farmer we spoke to highlighted their dependency on the rains, and the more erratic rain patterns nowadays. They also battled with high prices for the seeds and fertilizers which, paired with a lower price for their produce, resulted in a deflated income.

A combination of past inefficient farming techniques and the introduction of foreign seeds and aggressive pesticides often depleted the soil and caused the introduction of new pests which needed even more chemicals.

It was interesting talking to the older farmers, and their stories how things gradually changed. "Twenty years ago", said sixty years old Andrew, who also used to be a teacher, "Twenty years ago, we planted seeds without fertilizers. We had no pesticides. And yet, we had a high yield. We could use the seeds from our harvest for the next year's crop. Water was available everywhere. Forests were dense and plentyfil. But now, you will not yield any crop without pesticides and artificial fertilizers. We have to use hybrid seeds which are more drought resistant. The seeds from the hybrid plants themselves are worthless, so we have to buy new ones every year."
But he said so in a "tone of fact", not as a complaint. It was a statement.

And still they all cope: Some change the crops they grow or the type of seeds they use. Others resort to small-scale irrigation, mulching -covering the seedlings with clover-, or conservation farming... They brought up creative ideas on how to avoid erosion, conserve the manure from running off the fields and collectively advocated on planting more trees both for the fruits, the timber, and... the carbon credits.

Cameraman Bart

Each interview lasted about three hours during which we took ample time to get the farmers at ease, even though each of them was quite outspoken and not camera-shy at all. Each had a story to tell. Not only about their farming, but also about their families, how the men went off to work in the cities, and the women are left to the farming. How all too often, the grandparents are left with their orphaned grandchildren, as if a whole productive generation was decimated.

Jan Gerits in Kenya

Still, each and everyone of them smiled. There was more laughter than complaints in the air. Each had taken an active role in determining their destiny, even though they had far less control over "life" than anyone in more developed countries...

I left one week of Kenya feeling respectful for each of the people we met, whose lives briefly crossed mine. And at this moment, I am trying to put that respect into the videos we are producing.

Ruth, Cheleste, Emily, Edward, Julia, Anastacia, Margaret,.. you will soon get copies of the pictures and the finished videos. As promised!

PS: Some of the output of these interviews is reflected in short blogposts. The first one is already out on the CCAFS blog.

First two pictures courtesy Jan Gerits.

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Mobile phones for farmers in Africa:
Myth or reality?

Kenyan shack by the road

My first trip to Africa, goes back to 1994: Angola in the midst of the civil war. I "left" the continent end 1999, moving from Uganda to Kosovo.

Through my five years in Africa, I travelled extensively throughout. I was a first-hand witness of the mobile phone networks rolling out in different countries. From the old AMPR system and 2 kg mobile phone/walkie talkie bricks in Congo (then Zaire), to the new generation MTN-types using the latest technology, huge bandwidths, and connectivity of "a certain reliability".

Still by the time I left, end 1999, mobile phone connectivity was still pretty much limited to the capital cities. Even though, in just a few years, GSM had completely taken over the old 'copper' landline market in African cities, it seemed there was quite a hurdle to get the connectivity "upcountry".

Not only was the support infrastructure - electricity, security - often lacking to spread mobile phone towers in remote areas, but it seemed like the companies doubted if there was a real market...

That was back then, in 1999.

Since then, I have always been very reluctant to join the highly enthusiastic crowd propagating mobile phone technology as one of "the" key means for rural farmers to be "informed". "Informed" about the weather forecast, seed fertilizer and crop prices, and agricultural support.

I still remember saying "those farmers hardly having ends meet, without electricity in their homestead, often illiterate, ain't gonna use mobile phones"...

And then, last week, during my first trip to Africa in 12 years, we are in Karurumu village in Central Kenya.

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Karumu is about an hour's drive from the nearest provincial town. In other words: Karumu is, euh... remote. Here are some of the notes in my mind:

Kenyan couple

We are sitting in the shade of a mango tree, on the yard of Celeste's farm. Celeste is 88 years old. He fought the English colonizers "way back when". He has 10 kids. He says he can't remember exactly how many grand children and grand-grand children he has.

Celeste speaks slowly and stresses every word. We are listening to his story of how he built up his farm from nothing to the 30 acres it is now. How he was blessed with his children. Some who lived on his farm. He points out a house, a few meters further up. The house is locked up. It belonged to his son and his daughter-in-law, a doctor. Both passed away. Celeste and his wife Julia are now taking care of their grand children.

interview team Kenya

We are pulled into the story of Celeste and Julia, a story which is so common in Africa: children being raised by their grand parents. A generation being wiped away. Bart, our camera-man, keeps the focus on the sound and the ever changing intensity of the sun. Jan, the radio-reporter, is taking mental notes on what he would like to discuss further with Celeste. I am sitting on a stool, with Julia, Celeste's grand-grand child on my lap. Julia is fascinated by the sound an elastic band makes when you pull it like a guitar string.
In short, we are all pulled into the story, into the moment.

And then, all of a sudden, a mobile phone rings. Celeste, 88 years old, farmer from Karurumo village in Kenya, stands up, says "Excuse me", reaches into his pocket, pushes a button and starts talking into a Nokia.

Kenyan farmer with mobile phone

It is the driver of one of his five trucks. He is held up loading fertilizer on a farm a bit further up.
Celeste calls the driver of his other truck, informs him of the delay and orders him to pick up a load of firewood from another farmer.
As he puts the phone back in his pocket, Celeste, 88 years old, farmer from Karurumo village in Kenya, sits down, and continues his story about the price of fruit tree pesticides and the market price for a bag of maize. As if it all was the most normal thing in the world.

The picture of Celeste, answering the phone, stays with me. The sur-reality of a mobile phone ringing in the African bush.

Have I really missed a lot during my 12 years absence in Africa? Driving around for five days in Kenya, I think not. The overloaded trucks are still the same. The accidents are just as grave. People still die needlessly of diseases we find common in "The West". Nothing changed except one thing: Mobile phones are now everywhere. Farmers call each other with information, with questions, they are more informed, and stay 'connected' to each other.

I will be curious to see if I find the same giant leap into rural connectivity when travelling through Mali, Ghana, Niger, Burkina and Senegal in November.

One thing is for sure: I will not make fun anymore of those enthusiasts saying the mobile phone connectivity makes a big difference for rural farmers!

Picture interview team courtesy Willemijn Drok

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About reforestation and conservation farming in Meru Kenya

Today we did our last interviews in the neighbourhood of Meru, right under Mount Kenya.

Every single interview reveals new material, lets us discover new angles, and stories. More over, every single moment, we meet beautiful people, with a spank in their eye and stories to tell.

I have been amazed how little problem people have to stand in front of a camera team and start talking. Shows how proud they are of their work.

A couple of pictures from today's trip:

Edward is a retired teacher, who has also been farming since he was a little boy. He talked about the pests introduced with the cotton culture, and the way he is now planting trees to conserve the soil, protect his shamba from the wind, for the fruits and as an income by selling fire wood.

Edward Kenyan farmer

On Margereth's farm, we found a dozen women who showed us everything about "conservation farming", a technique which requires less efforts to plant, weed and irrigate, and at the same time, has a higher crop yield and is kinder to the top soil than traditional planting.

Kenyan farmer

Kenyan farmers

More snapshots of the people we met yesterday:

Kenyan women

Kenyan girl

Kenyan child

Kenyan farmer

Kenyan farmer

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Second day of farmer interviews in Kenya

Today, we did a second row of interviews in Emru Kenya, trying to understand how farmers cope with climate change.

We interviewed Ruth, a widow who was looking after her grandchildren, trying to find inventive ways to adapt to the shorter rainy season. I told her my first girlfriend was called Ruth too. She teased me "You should have married her, why did you not?".

Kenyan woman

I felt privileged to spend several hours with Celeste, with a blessed age of 88, and his wife Julia. They proudly welcomed us in the warmth of their farm, the largest I have seen so far. "I inherited nothing. Everything you see here, we worked for hard, with our bare hands", Celeste said.

Kenyan old couple

And we had another day on the fields. Women are forming cooperative groups cultivating a common piece of land. As we arrived, they were sowing potatoes.

Kenyan farmers preparing the fields

selecting potatoes

seed potatoes

Kenya - planting potatoes

Kenya - applying fertilizer

Some of them proudly showed a harvest of sweet potatoes, as one of their ways to adapt to the frequent droughts. They told us that root vegetables were far more resistant to the dry spells than other crops like maize or beans...

sweet potatoes

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Kenya's power women

Yesterday, I spent the whole day interviewing woman near Embu, Kenya. All farmers, looking for ways to adapt their crops, fields, methods, seeds and fertilizers to the changing weather patterns.

Kenya women

Kenya women

Kenya women

Kenya women

Kenya women

Kenya women

Kenya women

Kenya women

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Off to Africa, once more.

kids in Madagascar

People ask me "So how is the sabbatical going, having a nice rest?". Well, that's not exactly how it went. While shuttling between the family in Belgium and my base in Rome, it seems destiny carved out a specific path for me.

I always wanted to expand my experience with social media: blogging, Twitter, social bookmarking... And without really chasing projects, I have been fortunate to get several projects I could sink my teeth in.

I did a review for CGIAR's ICT-KM blog, designed a new blog for a CIAT project (See the draft design here) and made several YouTube videos for AgCommons. I was asked to coordinate the social media team for the upcoming AgKnowledge Share Fair in Addis, Ethiopia (see the initial shoutout for volunteers, and our Wiki page).

I am leaving for Addis tomorrow, combining the trip with another project I am really enthusiastic about: interviewing farmers on the impact of climate change in different countries in Africa and Asia. The goal is to gather material and generate short video and audio recordings, blogposts and pictures of the on-the-ground effects of climate change, the ways the communities adapt and mitigate the changes.

This is something I always wanted to do: travel around, take input using different means and outputting it via social media. I will be in Kenya for the first series of interviews next week, followed by a week in Addis for the Share Fair.

This will be my first trip to Africa since a while. While I lived in Angola, Malawi, DRC and Uganda for five years back in the nineties, and travelled around the continent extensively, I honestly can not remember the year of my last trip to Africa. Was it the onset of the Darfur crisis back in 2004? No, it can't be. It must have been the trips I did to Kinshasa back in 2005 and 2006.

Still, it has been four or five years since I set foot in Africa again (apart from a short trip to Cairo). I am excited to go back, to see the changes first hand, and to embark on a new series of projects.

It is strange how life goes. This is not exactly how I intended this sabbatical to go, but following the path destiny sets out, I seem to discover new things, new opportunities, new passions.

I turned 50 this week. 50! When I was younger, I always said I would never reach the blessed age of 50. "I'd fall out of tree, crash off a mountain top, or freeze to death in the Antarctic first", I used to say. But yet, I turned 50, three days ago. And still, life puts its challenges ahead of me. Still, I am wandering around, finding new things, exploring ways to make a difference while enjoying what I do.

I guess I will never settle. Maybe when I do, it will be the end of me. "Home is where I lay my head", says the song. And meanwhile, I put my future in the hands of destiny. She knows best.

Picture courtesy Michael Higgins (WFP)

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