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Economy

The "Google Man" connects Kenya to the world

May 12th, 2016
in:Economy
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Kenya
tags:Google, internet, Kenya, Youtube, Zack Matere

Kenya is among the frontrunners in internet penetration in Africa, with 69 per cent of the population having access to the Internet. But don’t let the numbers fool you. To hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, especially in rural areas, the internet is an alien world with access to internet information a pipe dream.

In a nondescript village in Western Kenya, Zack Matere has been on a mission; to connect the local population to the internet, the majority of them farmers and entrepreneurs, through translating what he researches online to local languages which he then displays at strategic locations like churches, market places and government offices which the locals frequent.

fairplanet spoke to him about his first encounter with Google that changed his life, his journey as a bridge between the internet and his people and the dreams he has for the community members.

fairplanet: First off, tell us about your first encounter with the internet and Google for that matter.

Zack Matere: I studied Diploma in Business Administration but then decided to go back to our rural area in a village called Soy in Western Kenya to do farming. I planted potatoes which have a good market there. But when they were ready for harvest I noticed very many white insects that were eating away the plants. I had heard from fellow farmers how the insects consumed entire yields and how the farmers had spent a fortune buying pesticides to control them to no avail. I knew this was bad, but I also knew that the internet had the answers to everything. I cycled 10 kilometers from our home to the nearest cyber café. I went to the search engine Google and described the condition of my potatoes. I learnt that they had been affected by aphids. I also learnt that there was a cheaper way of controlling the pests; spraying wood ash on the potatoes. When I did it and it worked, I developed a personal interest in how the internet worked to solve farm problems. I went back after a few days and searched for markets for my potatoes. I got a buyer online. This was magic, so I started toying with the idea of how I would replicate this to my fellow farmers. I saved until I was able to buy a smartphone that allowed me to be surfing from my home. That marked the beginning of my obsession with the internet to bring change to rural communities.

How is information access among people in your area?

Traditionally the people in Western Kenya who are predominantly farmers have relied on government extension officers. But government has stopped recruitment of extension officers as part of its austerity measures. This has therefore meant that the farmers have been left on their own despite new challenges and threat to farming like climate change and new pests and diseases. Farmers have been grappling in the dark.

What has been your experience translating the content from the internet to the local languages? How have the people in your community received it?

So I go to the internet, do a lot of research on various topics like good agricultural practices or the best markets for their produce and then translate it to the local languages, including Swahili and Luhya, then post it in strategic areas like churches, market places and government institutions where I know the majority of the locals frequent. It is a concept I have called Segereya Leo (Segereya today denoting the larger Segereya area). Simple information like controlling soil erosion using terracing methods, or increasing yields through push pull technologies are changing ordinary lives. People scramble to have a look at any new information I have posted.

Why is it important that people in your area receive information?

A majority of the people in this area depend on agriculture and entrepreneurship for income. It matters to them the information they get because it positions their businesses better. Farmers are also able to know for example what varieties are new in the market, what are the new threat to their farms, where the markets are and who to consult if they have any problems. There is a world of difference between a farmer who has information on the above and one who doesn’t. Information is everything to the success of the locals here.

How else has the internet benefitted you and your community?

After seeing the wonders of the internet, and after I bought the first smartphone in our village, I started tracing people who were involved in illegal logging of trees in water catchment areas. I could take pictures of the loggers and forward them to the relevant forestry authorities. Within no time the illegal logging had stopped. I also encouraged other community members to share with me anyone who was destroying the ecosystem and together we managed to avert a potential crisis.

You have gone ahead to scale up information access by setting up a resource center for farmers. Tell us more about it?

Yes. With help from well-wishers in the country and outside we have set up a resource center equipped with computers, internet and literature and farming. We welcome locals to come and acquaint themselves with new information to improve their farming, their small businesses and connect with the world. A majority of them have even gone ahead to open social media accounts which they use to connect with potential buyers. This is what I always envisioned. We want to grow the resource center to have specialists in various aspects of businesses including scientists, business coaches and agronomist to guide anyone who comes there seeking information. We want to turn this into a one-stop information shop.

Why does what you do matter to you?

I am motivated by a common phrase in the bible that says, ‘my people perish for lack of knowledge.’ I have seen the world of difference it makes when someone is armed with information and how their lives are changed. You can imagine a rural farmer farming from a point of no information. That in itself fans a cycle of poverty. That cycle is what I want to break. We have a very hardworking workforce, if only they can know how to farm and do business smart. That is what keeps me awake at night.

What have the milestones of your journey been so far?

When news hit about my interaction with Google, A high delegation of Google staff from New York visited my farm to film a documentary about my quest for knowledge. They called it Growing Knowledge. On Youtube it has already received over three million views and has been showcased the world over.

I have also traveled across the world to deliver speeches on the power of information in changing ordinary lives. I still remember when I was invited to San Francisco to attend the Intersection event at the Pixar Headquarters, where the most respected innovators in the world converge with leading social change agents to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The concept of using noticeboards to translate internet information into local languages has been adopted internationally, with a professor in the US working with his students to set up a Leo rural network of notice boards in Ghana.  In 2011, I was voted among the top 40 influential men under 40 in Kenya by the respected Business Daily publication. But my greatest achievement has been seeing how many lives and households have been transformed after reading the information I give them. I live for such moments.

Even with the impressive inroads that have been made in access to internet, a digital divide still exists. What, in your opinion, is the best way to connect the people in hinterlands with digital information?

A majority of the population take advantage of the fact that they are able to access the internet easily. If you go to the rural areas you will see the level of the information gap that exists. Public private partnership for starters would go along way in reaching the people in hinterlands. There is already demand for internet services here as evident by the number of people who visit the resource center, and while the roll out may be expensive we only need to get smart. Ideas like Project Loon by Google that involves using high altitude balloons floating in the stratosphere to provide low cost internet would work wonders in bridging the digital divide.

What are the greatest hurdles in what you do?

We have managed to get people to see the value of information access and they have warmed up to it. Now the biggest problem is that we don’t have the perfect connectivity to incentivize them to keep sourcing for information. We have limited computers at our resource centers and locals queue waiting for their turn. Some give up and leave, never to come back. That is a wasted opportunity.

What’s your next course of action?

I have been working with worldpossible.org assisting them in introducing an offline content platform for farmers known as RACHEL (Rural Area Community Hotspot for Education and learning ). It is working so well so far and we want to also replicate it in schools and other facets of the economy. My ultimate goal is to ensure that locals access information that changes their everyday life hustle free.

Can the internet change a society for the better?

From a personal point of view, I have seen the power of the internet to change an entire community’s way of life. The people of Western Kenya have found new and better ways of farming, found markets that pay them more and improved the general welfare of hundreds of families. If this is replicated in rural and marginalized areas, this could potentially change the poverty cycle big time. Internet is King.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
"Farmers have been left on their own despite new challenges and threat to farming like climate change and new pests and diseases. Farmers have been grappling in the dark."
"It matters to them the information they get because it positions their businesses better. Farmers are also able to know for example what varieties are new in the market, what are the new threat to their farms."
"After seeing the wonders of the internet, and after I bought the first smartphone in our village, I started tracing people who were involved in illegal logging of trees in water catchment areas. I could take pictures of the loggers and forward them to the relevant forestry authorities."

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