ELDORET, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Julius Cheruiyot has been a farmer since he was 16 years old. Forced to drop out of school because his family was unable to pay the fees, he went to work on his father’s farm in Uasin Gishu county, in Kenya’s Rift Valley region.
Today, Cheruiyot, 32, is a father of three who can afford to feed and educate his family by cultivating his own land. But as increasingly unpredictable weather in Kenya makes life difficult for subsistence farmers, he has joined a number of younger farmers who are using social media to learn how to cope.
Standing on his 5-acre (2-hectare) plot of land, Cheruiyot pulls out his mobile phone, clicks on a Facebook tab, and logs in to the page of Young Volunteers for the Environment (YVE), a group that posts updates on the latest news about the environment and climate change.
“Social media ... has assisted us a lot,” he says. “(With) the information we receive, we can now know the right time to plant our crops, because sometimes we realise it’s a short rain not a long rain, and end up incurring losses (if we don’t take the right action).”
Changing weather patterns in recent years have affected most farmers in Kenya and other parts of eastern Africa.
Over the past 10 years, Cheruiyot says, he has seen drastic changes in the local climate, whether low rainfall during the planting season or heavy rains at harvest time, resulting in low yields or completely failed harvests.
He learned about Young Volunteers for the Environment at an agricultural exhibition.
“I decided to join the group and since then I have learned (about) various aspects of climate change and how to cope with it as a young farmer,” he explains.
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,” according to Emmanuel Serem, the organisation’s president.
ADAPTING TO RISING TEMPERATURES
YVE’s 10 members in the Rift Valley aim to raise public awareness about climate change and how to adapt to rising temperatures in the region, which is known as the country’s bread basket. They educated themselves by attending workshops and conferences organised by environmental organizations.
The group has more than 900 followers on Facebook who access the information shared on the site and have online discussions about farming.
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 understand what is going on, said Ken Ruto, leader of the North Rift Theatre Ambassadors, another organisation that 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, whose group is based in Eldoret, in Uasin Gishu county.
The Rift Valley is known for maize and dairy farming. But planting maize every year is an increasing challenge because of irregular rainfall, as well as outbreaks of pest-borne diseases such as maize lethal necrosis, which affected crops in the valley in September 2012 and spread across the country.
YVE advises farmers on the kinds of crops suitable for planting according to changes in weather patterns. Among those it recommends to cope with the weather changes are millet, wheat, potatoes and sorghum. The group explains that rotating crops helps rebalance the acidity and alkalinity of the soil and improve its fertility.
“We have been planting maize since colonial time and this has really affected the production,” said farmer Cosmas Biwott. Following YVE’s advice, he switched to potatoes, and is delighted with the result. “It’s doing good and I am expecting a bumper harvest,” he said, laughing.
According to Serem, the president of YVE, farmers are in dire need of good information about changing weather patterns. Some farmers, he said, believe that poor harvests are divine retribution for the violence that wracked parts of the country, including the Rift Valley region, after Kenya’s 2007 general elections.
Serem said he is pleased with the response from farmers to the organisation’s efforts.
PROBLEMS OF ILLITERACY, ACCESS
“Young farmers (are) commenting and asking more questions,” he said. But he 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.
Cosmas Biwott, one young Rift Valley farmer who has used the social media service, warned 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 farmers don’t know to use phones or even read the information,” he said. “That’s a big challenge.”
Biwott thinks that farmers in the region would benefit from an information centre equipped with computers and internet access.
Serem said YVE hopes to open offices in every county in the Rift Valley region to reach farmers through forums, field days and exhibitions.
“Eight out of ten people (in the region) are farmers,” he said. “Therefore we need to embrace togetherness for the good of food security in the country.”
Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley.He can be reached at email@example.com.