LANET UMOJA, Kenya — When the administrative chief of this western Kenyan village received an urgent 4 a.m. call that thieves were invading a school teacher’s home, he sent a message on Twitter. Within minutes residents in this village of stone houses gathered outside the home, and the thugs fled.
“My wife and I were terrified,” said teacher Michael Kimotho. “But the alarm raised by the chief helped.”
The tweet from Francis Kariuki was only his latest attempt to improve village life by using the micro-blogging site Twitter. Kariuki regularly sends out tweets about missing children and farm animals, showing that the power of social media has reached even into a dusty African village. Lanet Umoja is 100 miles west of the capital, Nairobi.
“There is a brown and white sheep which has gone missing with a nylon rope around its neck and it belongs to Mwangi’s father,” he tweeted recently in the Swahili language. The sheep was soon recovered.
Kariuki said that even the thieves in his village follow him on Twitter. Earlier this year, he tweeted about the theft of a cow, and later the cow was found abandoned, tied to a pole.
Kariuki’s official Twitter page shows 300 followers, but the former teacher estimated that thousands of the 28,000 residents in his area receive the messages he sends out directly and indirectly. He said many of his constituents, mostly subsistence farmers, cannot afford to buy smart phones, but can access tweets through a third-party mobile phone application. Others forward the tweets v ia text message.
“Twitter has helped save time and money. I no longer have to write letters or print posters which take time to distribute and are expensive,” Kariuki said.
A recent report said that Twitter is enjoying big growth across Africa. It said South Africans use Twitter the most, but Kenya is second in usage on the continent.
The research by Kenya-based Portland Communications and Tweetminster found that over the last three months of 2011, Kenyans produced nearly 2.5 million tweets. More than 80 percent of those polled in that research said they mainly used Twitter for communicating with friends, 68 percent said they use it to monitor news.
Beatrice Karanja, the head of Portland Nairobi, said the findings show that the use of Twitter is part of a revolution for governments that want to open dialogue with their citizens and businesses that want to talk with their consumers.
When a man in his late fifties in Kariuki’s village fell into a pit latrine in December, the village administrator’s tweets mobilized area residents and saved him.
Rachel Bremer, a spokeswoman for Twitter, said her company wasn’t aware of Kariuki and his innovative use of Twitter, but she called it “a great one.”
“We are constantly amazed by the ways people all over the world are using Twitter to communicate,” she said.
She said that the company has a web page dedicated to telling stories about the unique uses of Twitter. The page highlights how one man in Pakistan live-tweeted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, how a father and daughter reunited after 11 years, and how a man raised funds to save a dog’s life.
Erik Hersman, a co-founder of internationally acclaimed Ushahidi, a nonprofit technology company, said Kariuki’s use of Twitter is a great example of how Kenyans in even the most remote areas can embrace social media.
“If a chief in upcountry Kenya is able to use and have an impact with his constituents by using tools like Twitter, it’s not too long before we see a massive movement in the country with these types of social media,” he said.
Kariuki, 47, said that he has been able to bring down the crime rate in Lanet Umoja from near-daily reports of break-ins to no such crimes in recent weeks. He also uses Twitter to send messages of hope, especially for the young and unemployed.
“Let’s be the kind of people that do good for others whether we get paid back or not, whether they say thank you or not,” one recent tweet said.
Kariuki said he intends to use Twitter to promote peace as Kenya prepares to hold another presidential election in the next year, it’s first since the 2007-08 postelection violence that killed more than 1,000 people in Kenya.
Kariuki said that when he was first appointed the administrative chief of Lanet Umoja he asked himself how he could tackle the region’s problems. First was solving the region’s poor communication infrastructure. He said he is currently setting guidelines to help him sift through the information he gets so that he does not send out incorrect tweets.
“Information is power, but information can also be destructive. What we are trying to minimize is destructive information,” Kariuki said.