Monday, 12 March 2012

How Convergent Media are Changing Communication in a Rural Village in Kenya

The timelessness, interactive and boundless reach features of convergent media are facilitating and enhancing human communication in unparalleled ways. What make convergent media particularly attractive is that they are not constrained to location, time, reach, and to a great extent – cost. Individuals, organizations and communities for whom traditional media have been out of reach (especially due to cost and requirement for specialized skills) can access and share information and interconnect with other individuals, groups and societies anywhere in the world, any time.

Take the case of the Kenya Government village Chief who has captured the attention of the CNN and BBC, Kenya London News for his innovative use of twitter. Chief Francis Kariuki is using micro-blogging for everything ‘from tracking down missing sheep to stopping crime’ in his rural village. Using his twitter-enabled smart-phone, the 47-year old Administrator does not only relay government directives to the residents of Lanet, but also participates in conversations initiated by the residents on matters on the new constitution, youth unemployment and how to bring down crime in the village. The Chief has become the envy of many local politicians and Government Administration officials who still rely on the irregular village ‘baraza’ - a public forum usually called by the Chief to communicate information to rural residents.

In Kenya, internet use has grown by a staggering 2000 per cent in the last ten years, with users increasing from 200,000 in the year 2000 to 3,995,000 users in June 2010. In essence, an estimated 10 per cent of the population has integrated internet use in its communication.

One of the transformative elements of convergent media are their capability to traverse the different levels of communication without the constraint of what Gregory and Fawkes describe as the ‘practical difficulties of using, coordinating and integrating a multitude of communication techniques'. To this, add the cost of producing and disseminating the communication. Using the PC or a mobile phone, an internet user can easily and swiftly engage in intrapersonal, interpersonal, group and society-wide level communication without needing to enroll a host of other media such as telephones, newsletters and radio.

The integration of different communication elements can greatly enhance the four primary functions of media: relationship building, expression of views and values, alteration of others’ attitudes and behavior and knowledge transmission (McQuail, D. 1994). Although traditional media fulfills these functions successfully, the speed, reach and timelessness of convergent media introduce a new dimension to the entire communication scope. Individuals can access a variety of information to help them make decisions much faster. They can then transmit the information they have gathered and share their points of view with other individuals or groups (formal or informal) and contribute in shaping people’s opinions and behavior in real time, and without incurring the costs of production as in the case of newspapers and magazines. Similarly, feedback – negative or positive - can be generated at the same speed and shared as widely within the existing communication networks and with other new networks, making the communication loops endless.

Chief Kariuki (left) with Lanet residents
And so the ‘Twitting Chief’, is able to answer individual residents’ distress calls on his phone at odd hours and link the callers up with the local police station or hospital ambulance. He no longer waits for the market day to discuss the on-goings in the village. Through twitter, he can receive security  alerts promptly and mobilise immediate response. Occasionally, he tweets inspirational messages to the congregants of his Lanet Methodist Church where he is a pastor. He also keeps a group of Kenyans from his village who reside abroad informed of the developments at home on twitter.

The implications of the changes enabled by convergent media are many and varied. On the one hand, it is the new and welcome facilitator and enhancer of human communications but on the other, it has potential to generate problems for communicators. Because content can be interfered with online, questions of credibility of the content and the content’s source can arise - impairing the very purpose of communication.


  1. This example of how Twitter and social media is being used in the poorest continent on earth, beset for years by famine, corruption and war, is testament to the awesome power of the Internet.

    Yet it would be interesting to know whether Chief Kariuki's desire to be part of the Twitterati is actually helping his people, rather than simply drawing attention to himself and his love of digital media. It sounds as though, by his link-up with emergency services and security services, that he is indeed proving to be acting from the best possible interests, but it would be most enlightening to hear a villager's viewpoint.

    1. I can only draw parallels between Chief Kariuki's motivation and those of Evan Guttman, the financial programmer in Shirky's book who helped to find Ivanna's phone, and Hanni, the Property Agent mentioned in the same book who mobilized passengers to petition the government for an Airline passengers' Bill of Rights. The three ordinary citizens from different parts of the world have some things in common: First, they have a desire to do something about the situations and circumstances that face them and the people around them (that is their common motivation); and two, now unlike before they have the social tools (accessibly and cheaply)in their hands to encourage and sustain participation of groups in the process of transforming their circumstances in a powerful way. The implications for PR from these examples is that the structure of society is changing rapidly. New media is enabling motivated individuals to self-organise and form groups where they can self-express and take actions. Individuals and groups no longer need organisations to organise them. PR practitioners will need to get into these conversations and advise the organisations appropriately and timely.

  2. This is a great example of convergent media used practically. Thanks for sharing!

    While it is truly inspiring to hear that Chief Francis Kariuki is using convergent media to disseminate information, tackle political and social problems and encourage his congregation I wonder if he should replace traditional methods of communication completely. You mention that an estimated 10% of the population have integrated internet use into its communication. Does this mean that the majority of people he is accountable to and responsible for are unable to engage with or dialogue with him?
    While the advantages of convergent media for him are undeniable, (they are cost effective, rapid, efficient and have the potential to reach large amounts of people), they are ultimately futile if they don’t reach the majority of his public.

  3. The reality in Kenya is that although the use of new media is growing exponentially (Kenya comes third after South Africa and Egypt in use of facebook and Twitter), these communication technology is still largely confined among the urban and young population (30 and below). The vast majority of people still rely on the radio and TV.

    Chief Kariuki's innovation is worth mention because he is breaking new ground and trying what has not been tried before in the rural areas - with astounding success. Though traditional methods of communication will be with us for some time (Notice in the photo above, he still makes personal visits to the homes of the residents of Umoja), as inferred in my recent blog post, Public Relations Practitioners in this part of the world have to read the writing on the wall: new media is rapidly handing ordinary citizens multiple choices of sources of information to select from. As a result, there is need to re-define our roles from that of conveyors of messages to one of strategic management function.