Serotu village, Terioko Ward in the northern Tiaty constituency in Baringo County is a godforsaken, in-the-middle-of-nowhere village, surrounded by a few thorny plants, history, serenity, scrubby trees, aridity, autonomy, and insularity.
The lime green landscape plays host to semi-arid vegetation loosely attached to the rocky landscape with the wide plains that lie beyond the canyon marking the edges of a region that has resisted modernity and so far, it is winning, comfortably.
Nothing defines this hermitic existence better than the marked lack of mobile or radio networks in the region. The 2000 or so residents have to trek for 5 Kilometres to the ridges outside the rural town to access mobile network if they want to call family and friends, listen to the news, and even summon an ambulance in case of an emergency, otherwise, on any given day, they live in blissful isolation.
Their closest access to ‘civilization’ and where they order for goods and seek services are Kolowa and Chemolingot centres which lie further down the road, quite far from the inner fringes of modernity.
Lekim Lomusing, draped in a Maasai shuka, green puffed jacket, and holding onto a thin shepherd stick raises his phone up and speaks into it in a husky voice laced with muffled affection and matter-of-factly-ness. He, just like his neighbours around the rural centre make up part of the 5 million strong Kenyans who are considered media dark or media gray.
The 2007 coalition regime we are often told opened the Kenyan rural regions through the spontaneity of boda boda as a convenient and affordable mode of transport, the mobile phone and the money transfer services (MPESA).
Rural modernity centred around communication, ease of movement and money transfers dependent on mobile network penetration have revolutionized the image of otherwise isolated regions into microcenters of colonial modernity adorned by people with access to at the very least the basic services of a typical town. Therefore, the news that 5 million Kenyans are considered media dark or media grey may come as a shocker to many.
The idea of a people living in a bubble unaware of the going-ons in the world around them may conjure images of primitive unreached tribes but that’s not always the case. Media dark and media grey zones in Kenya, exist in both urban and rural areas and are caused both by personal attitudes towards media consumption and inevitably the absence of media infrastructure available to persons in a specific region, as well as their literacy.
Most media dark and media grey areas with little to no access to both traditional and non-traditional communication platforms portend a new low for a country that is hailed for its mobile revolution and penetration. At 5 million, that figure rounds off to about 1 in every 10 Kenyans, a surprisingly huge number. And statistically worrying.
The Existing Media
A 2017 media landscape survey indicated that currently, Kenyans have access to 66 local TV channels and 337 channels worldwide, 44 newspapers, 243 radio stations and 42 magazines as well as 40 online sites.
Mobile penetration has risen year on year to reach 40.2 million subscriptions as of June 2017 with Safaricom, the leading Telecom giant having 29.2 million subscribers. Meanwhile, the post-paid subscriptions stand at 989,889.
Mobile internet has a subscription rate of about 19 million as of early 2017 marking a penetration rate of 40% with the internet connection pegged at a penetration rate of 84.9 percent raising the number of projected internet users in Kenya to 33 million as of 2021.
An inescapable picture that emerges is that the media dark and media gray Kenyans are largely the accidental outcome of lower mobile infrastructure services, much more than it is a willful avoidance of interacting with media forms. Subsequently, the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK), the legislative body charged with licensing and maintaining communication infrastructure in the country has established the Universal Service Fund (USF) Framework to help connect with this 5 million cluster.
It is from this fund that areas like Torioko that are un-served or under-served by the telcos firms as they are considered commercially unviable are provided with access to ICTs infrastructure.
Before the enactment of the 2010 constitution, strictly speaking, Kenya did not have a press law besides the Section 79 subsection (2) paragraph (a) of the (old) constitution which referenced when the freedom of the press could be curtailed. Coupled with the recent rise in the use of mobile telephony and the procurement of ever cheaper gadgets the new constitution has driven the media penetration in the country exponentially over the past two decades.
The new constitution provides further entrenchment of the Fourth Estate into the country’s laws through Article 34 of the constitution. However, the freedom and operations of the media including their penetration remain largely at the behest, the approvals, and sometimes goodwill of the ruling regime.
This state-press relationship ebbs and flows from moments of camaraderie to complicity, and sometimes to outright hostility and censorship as was witnessed during the January 2018 shutdown of NTV, KTN News, Citizen TV and Inooro TV.
Even then the shrinking of the media space and media freedom as espoused in Article 34 of the constitution has more to do with the censorship of specific content rather than a curtailing of the expansion and reach of media networks.
Torioko village, and similar media dark enclaves around the country would probably get better media access if they were regarded as consumer markets with an enormous but still-untapped opportunity for telcos firms seeking new markets. This media dark and media grey group is an overlooked opportunity as the rural consumer and the last frontier in media penetration.
By its sheer size, 5 million is a critical mass with a huge market potential for telcos firms and their advertisers. The absence of technology infrastructure in the media dark regions limits what advertisers, especially those of consumer goods can and cannot do.
With rural modernity playing a critical role in poverty alleviation in the country, provision of media accessibility is a low hanging fruit in the pursuit of poverty eradication.
They may be isolated but are not all poor; these media dark zones are part of the rural (and urban) consumer class that is emerging and expanding. Overcoming issues of product design, potential return on investment, market development, transport and logistics deters many telcos firms from making inroads into such areas.
Media in Isolated settings
Media dark and media grey zones have a different and widely varying media culture and consumption from hyperconnected zones and this is not just based on literacy. For example, as recently as the year 2002, national dailies would reach villages like Ortum in West Pokot two days after the publication. Ortum, a missionary valley town on the banks of river Munyunyi, 81 kilometers from Kitale, rapidly modernised in the 2000s thanks to its place as a transit town of the Kitale-Lodwar highway. Typically, a newspaper in the rural region is read by 20-30 people who through public discussions at Salons and drinking dens interpret the paper for the less literate people.
It’s rarely in doubt that since the media dark and media grey areas are mostly rural, isolated outposts the rise of vernacular media portends the best means of making them linguistically integrating into the national fold.
The proliferation of vernacular media stations has further fragmented the Kenyan media landscape providing greater variety and tools of reaching the media dark cluster while undercutting the power of the large media houses.
This media fragmentation has its own precarious effects in this era of fake news and its potential impact in creating a fragmented national consciousness cannot be ignored. However, this worry is easily checked by the oversight role of the Communication Authority and at the very least these media houses are playing a role for which they are best suited; reaching the linguistically isolated. There’s no region that can be deemed purely media dark given that even where there is no media penetration, there is still the reach of mobile gadgets through the networks may be erratic or non-existent.
Demographics of Media Dark/grey
Media accessibility, of course, varies along age groups with about 5.7 million Kenyans not consuming media in more than a week at a time. The consumption is spectacularly lower for the 15-17-year olds making up 4.8 percent. While the 18 -24 years make up 18.2 percent.
The bigger assumption often made is that low media consumption is a function of geographical location mostly hampered more severely in isolated towns and centres on the outskirts of local civilization. However, most media grey areas also include slum dwellings with no access to phones, TV, or radio.
Their media consumption, therefore, consists of occasional viewership of television at the local cafes and radio listenership in public transport. Their primary source of news often is the rumour mills and grapevines within their informal social and professional networks. These urban slum tenants consist part of the media grey and media dark cluster of the 5 million strong group.
Many of the five million considered media black is, therefore, media grey as they are third-hand consumers of media content through rumour as a literary genre employed as a tool for socio-political discourse, within their localities.