James Nguo is providing an integrated solution to improving the quality of life in rural East Africa by establishing a network of knowledge hubs which serve to increase access to agro-information for farmers, increase the capacity of extension workers in supporting farmers, and create employment opportunities for rural youth.
The New Idea
Through his organization, Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), James is building a network of knowledge hubs, called Maarifa (Knowledge) centers, across rural East Africa which are serving to catapult rural agriculture into the 21st century. At Maarifa centers, formerly isolated farmers learn how to use modern information and communications technology (ICT) to access and share vital farming information with each other. At these centers, previously under-resourced, disconnected, and often disillusioned extension workers can now efficiently coordinate activities with farmers and maintain contact with the larger agricultural research and policy communities. Youth from rural areas currently studying agriculture in urban areas are also provided an opportunity to put their knowledge into practice during their school holidays at the Maarifa centers. The combination of participating in a more sophisticated agricultural system and seeing the impact they can have on that system encourages them to consider returning to their communities upon graduation, thus curbing the exodus of a dynamic and necessary future rural workforce.
To avoid suspicions that the Maarifa centers are yet another project set up by a business man from the city to take advantage of the local community, James has incorporated a unique community-led organizational structure at each center. A governing body, composed of farmers and elected by farmers, establishes the priorities and creates the agenda at each center.
To ensure financial sustainability of the Maarifa centers, James has integrated revenue generating services, such as an M-Pesa agency, at every center. As a subsidiary of ALIN, James has also established a for-profit arm of the organization, Baobab Communications, which provides fee-based ICT consultancy services to citizen organizations (COs). This revenue helps to subsidize the pro bono services it provides to the Maarifa centers, such as hardware maintenance. Going forward, James plans to add a Business Process Outsourcing center to service businesses located in cities and abroad. Not only will this generated income further help sustain the Maarifa centers, but by being staffed by previously unemployed rural youth who take ICT courses at the center, it further helps reduce the rural-urban migration that depletes rural areas and often contributes to the accumulation of jobless masses in urban slums.
Seventy percent of Kenya’s population lives in rural areas and depends mostly on subsistence farming to survive. Agriculture has not modernized—a reality which contributes to stagnant economic development in these areas. Without such economic expansion, much of the rural youth remain unemployed, or move to urban areas, taking with them a potentially dynamic labor force.
A poor ICT infrastructure has been fundamental to the lack of modernization of agriculture in rural areas. In a faster, more competitive and more information driven world, East Africa’s rural areas have failed to provide the communications systems to facilitate such information exchange. Farmers have not been able to learn about modern farming techniques, or document their own best practices and share with each other. They struggle to get real-time information on market prices, or communicate with each other to organize collective buying of inputs at discounted prices.
Those attempting to facilitate the sharing of this information, including government and civil society, are severely limited because of this missing infrastructure, and often succumb to a sense of hopelessness. Kenya’s extension services system, for example, is ineffective because extension workers lack the communication tools they need in the field to keep abreast of changing trends in the agricultural sector. Working in remote areas without access to computer facilities or the Internet means that extension workers are unable to stay updated on research findings and emerging technologies that would otherwise be useful to the farmers they serve. Without these systems, they also struggle to report back to agricultural ministries and other influential policymakers what it is that they are observing in the field in a timely manner. Additionally, communicating with farmers can be as difficult as communicating with the outside world, as they are often spread across substantial geographic areas with no system in place to efficiently facilitate dialogue. Extension workers are therefore unable to do their job effectively and rural-based farmers continue to wallow in ignorance and poverty.
The Maarifa centers work with young people, farmers, and extension workers to teach them vital ICT skills, facilitate knowledge capture and sharing, create access to markets, and create youth employment opportunities. ICT skills are imparted on all three groups through a training program that runs every weekday. Farmers are taught the basics—from how to type, to how to use Excel for managing financial records. They are taught how to use modern technologies in capturing and documenting their farming practices. Case studies are shared online via a web portal that virtually links all Maarifa centers, as well as the print magazine, Baobab Magazine, which is distributed across the region every two months. Farmers are also taught how to use the Internet to research market prices and to connect with willing buyers of their produce. James is now on the verge of launching a mobile integrated market access software platform called SOKO PEPE that will make it easier for farmers to connect with buyers and suppliers on the Internet or via their mobile phones.
Maarifa centers also facilitate exchanges among farmers, as well as visits from agricultural students who study in urban areas but return to rural areas for school holidays. These students serve as temporary extension workers and accumulate their first experiences putting their studies into practice. Not only does this become an empowering experience for them as they directly participate in solving real-time problems, but they also gain first-hand exposure to the modernization of the agriculture sector. Their perceptions begin to change—in terms of what being a part of this sector can mean—they begin to shed the notion of farming being a lifestyle for the poor and uneducated, and reimagine it as a dignified profession.
James is also creating opportunities for rural unemployed youth not enrolled in university agricultural programs in urban areas.
These young people can take ICT courses at Maarifa centers, and will soon be able to put those skills into practice as James pioneers the concept of micro business process outsourcing in East Africa. Specifically, James plans to launch a small business at each Maarifa center where young people will be able to provide outsourced Information Technology services to companies in and outside the region. Not only will this help provide a source of income for the centers, but it will continue to raise the prospects for economic well-being in rural areas for young people who may otherwise end up in urban slums as they travel to cities in search of work.
Government extension workers are enabled by the Maarifa centers to keep up to date on the latest agricultural research and develop training materials for farmers. A central database and portal that links all Maarifa centers enables the extension workers to easily and more effectively share this information with and support farmers over a wide geographical area. The mere presence of computers and Internet connectivity also provides extension workers with the communication tools to update and inform agricultural ministries and policymakers, often located in urban areas, on what is happening on the ground.
Vital to the success of these centers, however, is creating the community buy-in, which is made challenging by a history marked by city dwellers entering rural areas proclaiming a desire to help but leaving after having taken advantage of the community. Recognizing this, James establishes a governing body at each Maarifa center. For coordination reasons, farmers at each center are divided into forty groups of fifty farmers (totaling 2,000 farmers attached to each center). The governing body is composed of and voted into position by each of these forty groups. It is then responsible for incorporating the thoughts of the larger group (of 2,000 farmers) and steering the direction of the Maarifa center. It is this kind of local ownership that encourages the sustainability and effectiveness of the centers.
There are currently fifteen Maarifa centers located in East Africa, including twelve throughout Kenya and three in Uganda. James has secured the funds to set up another 100 Maarifa centers all across Northern Uganda. Funding currently comes from a diverse group, including Oxfam, Ford Foundation, and the Danish and Finnish embassies. James is building on the ALIN network to extend the model to non-arid lands as well. He has distilled the model into series of set-up steps that he has documented in a Maarifa center “set-up kit” which he distributes to interested COs. To catalyze and facilitate the spread of the model even further, James is taking on training assignments from COs interested in replicating the model in their constituencies. James has also captured the attention of the Kenyan government, whose Vision 2030 plan includes tackling information technology. The Ministry of Agriculture has even set up a mock Maarifa center in Nairobi to display as an example of strategies that other COs should use in their work in rural areas.
James was born in the rural farming community of Meru in Kenya. His father was a civil servant and spent little time at home. James spent more time with his mother who tended to their farm at home. From an early age, James took a liking to art and design and dreamt of becoming an architect. While still in secondary school, he helped his church design and construct a local school. James fell short of the pass mark to qualify for architecture in university by one point. It was then, and only in this serendipitous turn of events, that he enrolled in a computer science course. During his course, he volunteered with various COs, helping them to design and develop information, education, and communication materials. Upon graduation, James worked with various organizations as an information and communications specialist before being appointed the regional director for the Arid Lands Information Network in Senegal.
Six months after his appointment at ALIN Senegal, the organization—at the time funded by Oxfam U.K.—ran out of funding and was forced to shut down. James believed in the potential of the organization and that he could introduce new programs to make it work in East Africa. He therefore convinced the board of trustees of ALIN to let him retain their name, and in 2006 founded an independent ALIN in East Africa; with a new vision to introduce Information Technology as the cornerstone to increasing the capacity of farmers to access information.