A Young ICT Expert in Commercial Farming: The Story of Mike Bill
38% of Kenya’s population are youth 15-35 years of age; they are expected to increase from the 11 million to 16 million by 2012. 1.3 million of these youth are unemployed. About 90% of them do not have appropriate vocational or professional training therefore limited chances to fully participate in Kenya’s labour market. Kenya is expected to remain youthful for the period 2008-2012, thus contributing to development. It’s therefore important to invest in the young population- education, health, social development, highlighting the potential benefits of doing so: building Kenya’s human capital, capitalizing on demographic dividend and breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. These issues have been articulated in the Kenyan First Medium Term Plan for 2008-2012 towards the achievement of the Kenya Vision 2030.
Agriculture is a key economic pillar for Kenya; it contributes to over a quarter of the country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides livelihoods for majority of the Kenyan population. Agricultural development has changed over the years becoming more reliant on information and communication technology (ICT). Whilst in the past, agriculture was for the illiterate, youth are now finding their way back to practice farming as a career, business as well get involved in other rural developments. They make use of ICT innovations to enhance their production, marketing and information sharing.
The life of an ICT consultant in Nairobi and a prospective commercial farmer in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya is one such example. 26 years old Mike Bill, works for a International development organization in Nairobi training the Ministry of Education senior officials on how to make use of ICT in the Education sector. Being a consultant, his source of income is irregular, and he could easily go for months without earning anything. So he started farming to supplement his income. Youth rarely have access to land, but he had the opportunity to use his father’s farm which had been fallow for the past five years.
On the 1.5 acreage land, he is growing a crop of maize on experimentation basis, Fresno Chillies in seedbeds and will plant potatoes to harvest them in December. The farm has been marked on Google maps, 5 kilometres from Kericho town.
Working fulltime in Nairobi required Mike to employ a farm worker, who lives with his family in the farm house that he recently refurbished. The farm worker tills the land, maintains fences, and provides security and other jobs. Mike consults a graduate from an agricultural college in Kericho whenever he is preparing the land, planting, monitoring progress, identifying pests and diseases and other agronomic activities. The consultant is like his farm manager.
Unlike his neighbouring farmers, Mike heavily relies on ICT to run his farm, as re revealed to me over a Skype interview: “The saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ comes into play here. I have always been frustrated by people who do things in a lacklustre manner without offering much explanation or reason. So I turned to the internet for information on how things are done and then get people to do them using the knowledge I have acquired. The main tool I currently use is the bio vision website www.infonet-biovision.org which gives a lot of information on crop production. I also like to do things as scientifically as possible so I usually go as far as using tools like Google maps to determine my farms exact altitude and global rainfall patterns from websites such as www.world66.com. We could also speak of other ICT tools like M-PESA which is great for paying guys at the farm!” . With M-PESA, a mobile banking service, most Safaricom mobile service subscribers no longer have to carry cash money or worry about paying bills. Mike successfully uses the service to pay his workers and farm expenses when in Nairobi.
I am a colleague of Mike; he always passes by our office every month to pick copies of the resource materials to enrich his farming knowledge. This information is later shared with his consultant and the farm worker. Among the resource material that Mike reads include: The Organic Farmer, the Young African Express (a magazine meant for primary and high school pupils), the Miti Magazine, Kilimo and Baobab. These are local magazines published by Kenyan organizations on rural agriculture, development and information sharing.
Although his farm worker is young and literate, Mike says he is not great in interpreting written instructions. He has to supplement the magazines with verbal instructions and better still, an example. He is however optimistic, that this will change as he continues encouraging him. He hopes that some time, the worker will be sending him photographs via MMS, receipts and emails detailing progress. He has bought him a radio and advised him to listen to several agricultural radio programmes that could benefit his work on the farm. He notes that this challenge happens to many other farmers in the region who are illiterate yet have large farms under crop production, thus produce below their land’s capacity.
ICT can provide numerous benefits to a young farmer: updated farming information, market updates, pest management among others, but for Mike, his best input from ICT has been confidence. Confidence to venture into something new with the knowledge that he can always draw from other people's experiences through the internet. ICT innovations have enabled him to connect with networks of farmers around the continent whom they share experiences and knowledge. He hopes to practise sustainable export farming on that tiny piece of land. With the internet in particular, he has confidence that he shall achieve that. He has notified an export farmer in Ruiru, Central Kenya, of his planting plans; with his network, this farmer will get a market for Mike’s Fresno Chillies.
Mike’s biggest challenge has been language. A crop that is known on the internet by a scientific name could be available here but in different names, thus hard to make enquiries. He experienced this when looking for the Fresno Chillies seeds from the local suppliers. Extremely rare and not known by that name; it took months to find someone who knew about them. The same goes for diseases, pests, herbs and their corresponding pesticides. This has been a huge challenge for him especially given that he does not have an agriculture career background.
While ICT has been very useful in Mike’s farming experience, he has also discovered that not all information is reliable. Last year, when he was starting up, he had a disaster with a crop of beans using instructions he got from a website. The website claimed it was a high intensity method of growing beans. He positioned the seeds very close to each other and used a certain chemical to kill pests. Unfortunately, the beans sprouted and were absolutely routed by pests despite all the interventions he tried. He later found out that the problem was the spacing of his beans. Legumes are not to be grown very close over a large area but they require intercropping. This was a painful start of his farming journey, but he now became very careful about the information he uses from the internet.
Mike, born and brought up in the Kericho area, his family lived on a farm where they did small scale farming that was purely for subsistence. He is very much a village boy, going to a rural primary school where it was an offence to put on shoes because you would embarrass the teachers. His background makes him comfortable with being around a farm and rural folks. However, his inspiration to be a commercial farmer came from the experiences he had travelling around Kenya, especially Central province and seeing how people used their small farms to make money. Kericho has the advantage of rain and great soils but the blight of laziness and lack of knowledge has made small scale agriculture not unsuccessful.
Mike has the zeal to make a difference for himself, his family and his community. In future, he plans to have a large self sustaining farm with a farm manager growing export organic crops and maybe dairy animals. So far, he cannot openly count success but progress. He shares his plans with his peers over the phone and emails and hopes to have a Facebook page once he has the first produce ready for sale.
This article is a story of Mike Bill, an ICT consultant in Nairobi Kenya who has been using his ICT skills in his recently established commercial farm. I interviewed him via Skype after noticing his keen interest on the education resource materials (especially agriculture related). Since the interview, I was inspired to gather more information about commercial farming and share with him. I already advised him to subscribe to ICT Update and he is very glad to be part of the global networks on rural development and agriculture. He inspired me to start sharing information with rural youth network on better farming methods, markets and farm management. I also started a blog where I will be sharing the challenges of the rural young farmers seeking solutions. Two weeks ago, I put him in touch with a renowned insect scientist at the Nature Kenya to get answers on some pests that had infested his farm, but could not identify him. He is now safe with all the appropriate integrated pest management practices.