Tag Archives: Cellphone

(Mis-)communicating climate information in Kenya

“Is this a bad time to call?” Mobile phones, migrants (mis-)communication of climate information in Kenya

NEW!  Click here to download the full presentation from Wed. 5 April, 2017 – American Association of Geographers (AAG), Boston, MA

Huge thanks to all who joined me and my fellow panelists (Peter Dannenberg; Sheila Huggins Rao; Dorothea Kleine) at the American Association for Geographers (AAG) meeting in Boston, MA.  Feedback, questions and comments continue to be welcome. Please keep in touch!

Abstract: . Ethnographic fieldwork conducted with farmer groups in contrasting high and low market-access sites over the period 2012-2016 explores how household members shared (or withheld) information about climate and agricultural performance using phones or physical visits.

Phone calls were the dominant medium for information sharing, which for agricultural issues prioritised discussion of crop problems, dry spells, lack of inputs, and extreme weather events.  Mobile money transfers were the most common response to reported problems with many migrants concerned and frustrated by the poor agricultural performance in the rural areas. Reliance on mobile communication and a decreasing frequency of migrants’ physical involvement in the rural home leads to migrants’ perceptions that climate-related changes are extreme and potentially costly.

Narratives of climate change and its impacts in rural Kenya must therefore be interpreted with care, since many are embedded in household narratives constituted to maintain the economic and emotional involvement of migrants in their rural homes.

FOLLOW THE PROJECT ON ITS WEBSITE multilocationality.wordpress.com


Cellphones’ ambiguous effects on rural households in Western Kenya (2015, Article)

“Never at ease”: Cellphones, multilocational households, and the metabolic rift in western Kenya

Agriculture and Human Values (Dec. 2015) DOI: 10.1007/s10460-015-9654-3
Download the pdf from my ResearchGate site here.

AHV coverHIGHLIGHTS: New field data from Western Kenya (building on the chapter published in 2014 – read it here) suggests:

  • Rural households are networked to migrant members elsewhere in the country, who can be called upon for financial, social, and emotional support.  These networks were larger than expected.
  • Frequent telephonic contact within households seems to be decreasing the frequency with which members physically see each other, and extending the time between migrants’ return visits to the rural area.
  • The lack of physical presence is disrupting the transmission and generation of agroecological knowledge about the rural area.
  • Migrant men believe themselves to be quite involved in rural affairs; frequent telephonic contact constrains the already limited autonomy of female-headed households in the rural sphere.

The article is part of a series of papers from a 2014 symposium on “Labour Dynamics of Agrarian Change”.  SSHRC-funded research in Kenya (2015-2020) will continue to explore these issues in other settings and in greater detail.
ABSTRACT: Western Kenya has been a labour-exporting region for over a century, with many households straddling both rural and urban contexts. While the spatial separation of migrants from their rural places of origin represented the first tangible metabolic rift within Kenyan agricultural production systems, that rift is being reshaped as rural families engage in new forms of interconnection with migrant members (“multilocationality”). These changes appear to be driven by the ongoing crisis of agrarian livelihoods and are supported by the advent of cellphone communication and mobile money transfer technologies.
Interviews and ethnographic data collected in a western Kenyan community and amongst its out-migrants reveal the role of cellphones in mediating social, financial, and knowledge flows within multilocational households. The increased ease of communicating and sending money is associated with less frequent physical movements between rural and urban settings, with commensurate disruptions in the acquisition and development of agro-ecological knowledge, and a shifting burden of agricultural labour. Gender relations are also put under further stress: migrant men remain (or believe they have remained) involved in rural affairs but appear to be using cellphone technologies to reinvent their household roles, replacing previously social or labour contributions with financial ones and by asserting claims over the on-farm decision-making of rural households previously considered female-headed.

(Contact me for more information…)

How to (mis)understand youth, migration & agrarian change

Much of the literature on a “cellphone revolution” in Africa frames the technology as the driver of change, for such things as financial inclusion for the poor, better agricultural or climate information to farmers, the power for social movements to hold governments accountable.  In this brown bag talk I am interested in exploring how cellphones are part of a broader set of social changes – responding to and helping to shape those changes – but not necessarily driving them.

Click here to download the slides (“This cellphone is my lifeline”: How to (mis)understand youth, migration, and agrarian change in Kenya).

This talk draws on ongoing research as well as material previously published and presented, e.g.:

Kenya’s Telephone farmers (6 May, 2014) uOttawa Alumni Week

My presentation: Kenya’s “Telephone farmers”: Cellphones, migration, and ecological knowledge (pdf version available here).

The Faculty of Social Sciences organized this panel to highlight the role of social sciences in understanding food (in)security and food issues more generally.  (Thanks to the Vice-dean of Research and Alumni Affairs for making this part of the 2014 Alumni Week!)

CO-PANELISTS: Marie-Josee Massicotte (Political Studies), Jose Lopez (Sociology), and Elizabeth (Betsy) Kristjansson (Psychology).

Photos from the event available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/uottawaalumni/sets/72157644621289493/.

2014-05 Sl Sci of Fd - send pesa
Sending money might be easy by phone in Kenya, but it complicates social and economic relationships.

Lost in transition: Cellphones, multilocational livelihoods, and agrarian change in western Kenya

How are cellphones reshaping the lives of rural Kenyans and the family members who “leave” home?  Click here to read the PDF version of my talk Lost in transition: Cellphones, multilocational livelihoods, and agrarian change in western Kenya”.  

Huge thanks to all who joined me and my fellow panelists (Lincoln Addison; Regina Hansda; Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt; Chris Huggins) at the American Association for Geographers (AAG) meeting in Tampa, Florida.  Feedback, questions and comments continue to be welcome. Please keep in touch!

Abstract: Western Kenya has been a labour-exporting region for over a century, with many households opting to “straddle” both rural and urban contexts by deploying multilocational livelihoods that have reproduced themselves over generations.  Ethnographic and historical investigations show that while this densely settled landscape (with the highest population densities in Kenya) was self-sufficient in food production up until the 1940s, for the last 70 years households and communities have relied heavily on off-farm income and reciprocity to maintain food security, thereby staving off major food crises despite environmental and socio-economic pressures.  Indeed, contrary to the dominant, capitalist models of rural-urban migration and agrarian change, these household coping strategies have actually supported a continued growth in the rural population even while agricultural output has remained stagnant and land per capita dwindled.  This paper draws on thirteen years of interviews and survey data from several western Kenyan communities to interrogate the role of new technologies (especially cellphones) in accelerating the ways in which migrants are (re )enrolled in rural struggles for land, labour, and food security.  Multilocational livelihood strategies are significantly reshaping gender relations and household decision-making but appear to dilute and spread the scarce resources of all but the most advantaged households.


The Social Lives of Mobile Telephones in Kenya

More Kenyans have access to a mobile phone than to electricity or even to clean water.

Mpesa shop, Kenya
Mpesa shop (2012)

Considering that most of rural Kenya was not even covered by cellphone networks a decade ago, the spread of cellphones has had a rapid impact on the countryside, and how rural households relate to their migrant family members.  Kenya pioneered phone-based money transfer technologies (mPesa) but the widespread use of cellphones is also changing gender dynamics and the power relationships between young and old.

This research project (funding proposal submitted to SSHRC Oct. 2013) asks “How do rural-urban interdependencies in Kenya affect livelihoods and food security?” Four interlinked objectives are:

  1. To illustrate the extent and dynamics of multilocational livelihoods in contrasting socio-ecological contexts of Kenya, with focus on the extent and temporal patterns of mobility, migration, long-distance communication, resource transfers, and knowledge exchange.
  2. To evaluate the socio-economic impacts of multilocational livelihoods, particularly the vulnerabilities and opportunities created by a) flows of resources (investments and support) and b) changes in the internal gendered and intergenerational dynamics of decision-making, access to land, and control of labour.
  3. To evaluate the agro-ecological impacts of multilocational livelihoods, especially on food security through changing agricultural productivity and practice, and agroecological knowledge.
  4. To evaluate the information and resource needs of differentiated, multilocational households, to identify poverty traps or other barriers to effective participation in rural or urban spheres.
Kenyan woman holds her phone up in a maize field
(photo by M-kilimo)

Publications so far:

  • 2014 Book Chapter (‘We will not farm like our fathers’) outlined some of the preliminary ideas for this research.
  • 2015 Article (‘Never at ease’) uses new, field data to explore the challenges multilocational households face in Western Kenya.

Livelihoods, Cellphones, and Migration in Kenya (2014, Chapter)

2014-NRE coverRamisch, J.J. (2014) ‘We will not farm like our fathers’: Multilocational livelihoods, cellphones, and the continuing challenge of rural development in western Kenya.  Chapter 2 in D. Sick, (ed.) Rural Livelihoods, Regional Economies, and Processes of Change. Routledge.  Pp. 10-35.

Download the unrevised pdf from ResearchGate here.


Many sub-Saharan Africa smallholder farmers have diversified beyond purely agricultural, rural livelihoods towards ones with household members exploiting opportunities in multiple locations.  This chapter explores the evolution and implications of multilocational livelihoods for western Kenyan households and out-migrants, using interviews and ethnographic data collected over a 12-year period.

Findings suggest that:
– The livelihood and food security vulnerabilities of both the rural and urban areas are strongly interlinked, supported in part by contemporary cellphone communication and money transfer technologies.
– Multilocationality results from and reinforces intergenerational and gendered tensions and is changing the ways that agroecological knowledge is created and shared.

(Contact me for more information…)