“Knowledge is power and information grows through sharing”
Multi award-winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi knew he wanted to write from a young age to bring about positive change in people’s lives. In this interview, he tells us which of his stories have had the most impact and why.
Why journalism? What made you want to have a career in writing and particularly in reporting about agriculture?
My passion from a young age was storytelling, a talent that was spotted by my teachers who encouraged me to tap into it and try my hand at writing. I wrote a short novel in high school about rural youths who go to the city in search of a better life, but never returned home, shattering the hopes of their entire families. The idea was inspired by what I had observed over the years growing up in rural Kenya.
When I got into the newsroom in 2010, I realised I wasn’t interested in general writing, and that actually, I needed a bigger cause. That is how I settled on agricultural reporting. I wanted something known as ‘utility journalism’ in the newsroom – something informative that can bring value to people and change lives.
During a media tour organised at the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization, I talked with scientists who knew, for instance, how to plant new high-yielding seed varieties, ways in which to tackle pests, and low-cost farming techniques. I knew this information could transform the lives of ordinary farmers. But the scientists didn’t have a way of reaching out to farmers in rural areas. I decided that I wanted to be that vital link, and went on to pursue agriculture reporting after studying business journalism at university. I have never looked back.
In 2013, you won the Africa Media Initiative challenge under the agriculture and food security category. What was the article that won the challenge and how has winning this award made a difference to your career?
The story Urban farmers grow more with less to feed rising population highlighted the burgeoning population that was moving to East African cities, despite food unavailability occasioned by price spikes and erratic supply from rural farmers. As a result of the food scarcity, city dwellers were paying as much as four times the normal price for their commodities, constituting 40% of their income and creating a growing pool of urban poor. What I found most interesting in this story was that a high number of individuals living in low-end houses and slums had managed to shield themselves from this problem by growing salad produce, such as kale, cucumber and tomatoes, using sacks and old tyres to create miniature gardens.
This development in urban farming remains one of the best stories I have ever covered and was used by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture to provide insights into new and innovative ways of supporting urban agriculture. I also received numerous calls from farmer groups, schools and organisations across East Africa who wanted more details about the concept. I became a reference point on urban farming and, to date, still get inquiries and requests to give talks on my experience covering the story. I feel so proud to have seen something I pioneered reporting on become a solution to addressing urban hunger, especially in East Africa.
As the East Africa chief editor for Africa Business Communities, you have also written extensively about emerging agricultural markets and technologies on the continent. How do you think writing on such topics can help to enhance local development and prosperity?
Knowledge is power and information grows through sharing. Working for Africa Business Communities in reporting and editing, I have seen how new agricultural marketing concepts and innovations developed in one African region can generate great interest from another. Within East Africa, we have seen a lot of interaction and interest in content that relates to emerging markets in particular. For example, reporting on rural famers who move away from traditional crops to high value ones to access export markets is the kind of story that generates a lot of interest, and resonates with people. And, because information nowadays travels very fast, young people are adopting this information and using it either to move into modern farming or to train their parents, creating a new farming revolution that is reshaping agriculture as we know it.
How has your work with WRENmedia enabled you to communicate agricultural and rural developments to a wider audience?
I have had extensive interactions with WRENmedia since 2011 – from my initial training on reporting science and agriculture, to being a co-trainer working with scientists on improving media relations, to producing content for the various publications WRENmedia edits. These experiences provided me with a solid foundation that not only prepared me to for agricultural reporting, but also exposed me to a huge network of journalists and scientists across Africa. This has been key to covering stories that transcend my country borders, and in agricultural journalism, where sources are essential, has allowed me to go for a story that would have been hard to cover without such contacts. For example, when I was writing a story on East African farmers fighting climate change with homemade innovations, and wanted to give the article a regional outlook, I was able to connect with farmers in western Tanzania through a journalist I met during the WRENmedia training. The same reporter put me in touch with scientists working with farmers on the project so I could also include their perspectives.
As a trainer in the effective use of digital media, how do you think the use of such platforms can increase the impacts of development journalism?
The digital space has given development journalists a new mojo, with a proliferation of tools at our fingertips to simplify stories whilst at the same time, making them sexier and more exciting to readers. Images, combined with text, videos and podcasts should be cardinal if we are to get the message out there effectively and efficiently, because these tools make description and narration of some of the technical concepts associated with development journalism easier to understand. They are the magic bullets in an area that has long been branded dull and boring, which gives us a chance to inspire others.