"We are farming much more efficiently than we did in the past, because we have access to better information," she says. "We have become more efficient and businesslike, and this has led to better crop and milk yields." Not long ago, her two dairy cows used to yield just 4 litres of milk a day between them; now, she gets 12 litres from each cow, thanks to better feeding practices and the use of improved breeds. None of this could have happened, she says, without the help of KENFAP's Regional Information Centre, which occupies a cramped office off one of the busiest streets in Meru.
The Meru information centre is one of 10 centres established by KENFAP with support from CTA under the project "Strengthening and improving rural communities' access to agricultural information in Kenya." The project enabled KENFAP not only to establish and equip a network of regional information centres, but to revive its bimonthly magazine Farmers' Voice, train farmers how to use the Internet, improve the skills of its staff, and attend agricultural shows.
"Our role is to represent farmers, sensitise farmers to the services available to them, and push for changes in policy which will help farmers in Kenya," explains KENFAP's chief executive officer, Kanywithia Mutunga. CTA's support has played a significant role in the development of KENFAP's communication policy. "We always had a good relationship with CTA," says Dr Mutunga, "and it complemented the support we've received from other organisations such as Agriterra."
The role of Regional Information Centres
The first thing that strikes you when you enter one of the regional information centres is the sense of industry. These are places that are meant to be used. Every year, around 2400 farmers visit the centre in Meru, and around 10,000 in Nyeri. Some come to browse in the library, or borrow books. In Meru, the centre has 32 books or booklets which it describes as "farmer-friendly"; and 112 of interest to researchers and extension agents. Visitors can also read Farmers' Voice, CTA's Spore magazine, and dozens of leaflets about specific aspects of farming, many published by CTA.
Farmers will often come with specific problems related to pests and diseases, or the feeding and care of livestock, for example. "If I know the answer, then I'll help them, but more often I link them to advisers within the local branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries," says Lucy Nyambura, KENFAP's county coordinator in Nyeri. She always follows up to make sure that the farmers have received the help they need.
The Regional Information Centres also have computers, provided with support from CTA. In Nyeri, KENFAP invited the 80 farmers groups which are members of the branch to send youth representatives for training. They were taught how to set up email accounts, browse the Internet and search for information. As a result, says Lucy, many farmers have improved their productivity and some have even established new enterprises as a result of what they have learned. One of the most striking examples involved a group of retired civil servants who established a quail farming business in Nyeri. They first got the idea from reading about these birds in Spore; they then used the Internet to gather more information and contact breeders in Nairobi. Now they have a thriving business.
Regional information centres are an important resource for a wide range of groups and organisations. For example, district extension teams – involving farmers, KENFAP county coordinators, government offices and researchers – frequently meet in the centres. Farmers who are members of 'common interest groups' also use these centres as a source of information and the place to contact research institutions, extension agencies and others who can help them.
One of the disadvantages of the centres is that they are based in towns, and difficult to get to for farmers who live in remote areas with poor infrastructure. However, the centres have established training programmes which are held in the countryside, and these often get information to farmers who wouldn't receive it otherwise. "We've held a whole series of training programmes on subjects such as bananas, sweet potato and maize production, on entrepreneurship, and on developing livestock enterprises," says Judith Nkatha, KENFAP coordinator for Meru County.
These training sessions have helped farmers improve their productivity. After holding discussions with Annah Kiambati and a group of women farmers in Rwanyange, near Meru – she was gathering information for a CTA impact assessment – Mercy Rewe, KENFAP's manager in charge of information, communication and knowledge management, summed up some of the benefits of training.
"The women cited plenty of examples of how training sessions have helped them," said Mercy. "For example, they now know how to choose the best varieties of banana and what they have to do to increase yields."
Many are now getting bigger bunches of bananas, worth five times more than the meagre bunches they used to produce. Likewise, training sessions on chicken farming has led to the introduction of new breeds and better feeding regimes, which in turn has led to a doubling in the price they get for each bird as their chickens are now of larger size.
CTA is now focusing on supporting regional, rather than national, farmers' organisations. But its influence endures. KENFAP's regional information centres continue to operate successfully, serving an ever expanding number of farmers; Farmers Voice and various e-bulletins provide farmers and extension agents with up-to-date information. However, it's not just CTA which deserves praise. "CTA support has been extremely important, but so has the support we've received from a range of other organisations.," says Mercy Rewe. "They have complemented each other very well."