More often than not, the local, media is increasingly being accused of giving priority to publishing and broadcasting political content at the expense of the socio-development information that can directly impact on the predominant rural population whose derive their livelihood from farming and small scale businesses.
The common denominator in this argument is that political news and information although it may empower Kenyans in ensuring they make informed political decisions does not equip them with knowledge and skills necessary to make an additional shilling that will go a long way in contributing to improving their living standards.
Until this month (March), I was privileged to be an editor of a national weekly newspaper, which at its inception sought to be biased in favour of socio-development content. Initially, the reaction from our readers was that of excitement and appreciation.
However, this appreciation did not translate into higher sales volumes at least within Nairobi's Central Business District (CBD) and strangely, within the rural areas. The story was however different in areas considered up-market, patronised by people with higher incomes.
Sooner, I started getting reports from our circulation department, based on market intelligence gathered by the newspapers vendors that we needed to publish political information in particular with some intrigue for us to make some headway in sales.
That we did, and the sales started going up in the CBD and specific rural areas.
Most recently, I was part of media and socio-development experts at two different and separate capacity building workshops. One was deliberating on ways to empower the rural farmers understand the emerging trends in the global horticulture industry and the other was on how media reporting can empower the publics to get involved in wealth creation initiatives in East Africa region.
It emerged that as much as journalists may write stories that can empower the village folk, readership, purchasing power and newspaper circulation networks within areas they inhabit was low. So, how will this information benefit them if they do not have a chance to read it in the first place?
In Kenya, the radio still remains the most owned media, hence the most opportune mode of disseminating value information. First because with as little as Ksh.150, one can buy the small transistor radio. The content is free. The case is different for the newspapers, which every issue comes with a price tag that can assure a rural family of a square meal for a day.
There is an option for the internet, but the computer ownership is very low, computer literacy is high and internet access charges are beyond the reach of most Kenyans. To access the internet for one hour in Nairobi sets you back at least Ksh 50, and the fee is higher in the rural areas.
Yet, even open source research clearly indicates that the media has a very high influence on Kenyans. Kenyans have faith in the media and that is why it shapes their [political] opinion.
Rural newspapers, community radios and village Information Communication Technology (ICT) centres would answer the question on how value added information can reach the rural folk.
Today, initiatives towards this end are extremely rare in Kenya. One reason is that media investors are generally looking for profits, which is in itself a very good idea. What is missing is the media that is not necessarily geared towards profits but satisfying the community economic empowerment needs.
In Kenya today, there is only one community radio, the Radio Mang'elete. Broadcasting in Kamba language, it was born out of the need to address famine issues within Makueni district. Rural communication experts say that what the government only needs to do is to reduce the cost of frequencies for community radio and avail the licenses because their need is overwhelming.
State of the art community radio equipment costs only Ksh. 400,000 and can be operated with ease. Such a radio has a potential of reading a broadcast radius of at least 40 kilometres.
Media investors give rural newspapers a wide-berth fearing the risk of low investment returns because the rural folk may not be keen to spend on a newspaper and advertisers may find the readership target to have a lower purchasing power.
That is where the Constituency Development Funds (CDF) kitty comes in handy. Most districts have several constituencies and the investments on a village newspaper and community radio be based on the district as a focal point. The costs can then be distributed to the existing constituencies.
Take the case of Kirinyaga district for example. With four constituencies and every constituency receiving about Ksh 24 million CDF every year, the cost of a small printing press, costing about Ksh 1.5 million can be shared out. One or two media professionals can coordinate news gathering within a single constituency.
Because of CDF subsidy, the newspapers can be sold for as little as Ksh 10, a figure affordable to most people not to mention that this will be only a once-a-month expense.
The cost of establishing two or three ICT centres in every constituency, with internet access, can comfortably be taken care of by the CDF kitty. The benefits are enormous, because the targeted audience and readership is specific, –rural farmer and small scale entrepreneurs - the content will be developed with considerations of their priority economic empowerment needs.
Because of the motivation non-profit and empowerment, it means the medium will give more space and broadcast time to such content hence enabling more understanding of the message, its digestion and utilization.
Profit-leaning investors will surely into come into such ventures so the onus is on journalists to take charge of such projects at the rural level and for the members of parliament, as patrons of the CDF, to recognize the importance of rural media and accord it the necessary funding.
By Steve Mbogo
Editor & Freelance Journalist
Comment on this article!