Kicking Conflict into Touch: How Sport and Technology Unite Community and Conservation in Kenya

Football has long been recognised as a unifying sport, with the ability to bring sides together in some of the most trying of circumstances. In this installment of Digital Diversity, Njenga Kahiro shares his very personal experience of how a combination of football and text messaging have successfully brought together warring communities to promote conservation in Kenya.


Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Gabrielle LePore, our Media and Research Assistant. You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter at @GabrielleLePore and at @kiwanja

By Njenga Kahiro

I’m a mobile technology buff who loves efficiency, saving money and making our home on Earth a better place. I work in a remote and rural landscape in Laikipia County, Kenya where the population is around 500,000 and there are only 80 kilometers of paved roads. Because of this effective communications is essential, and makes all the difference to everyone in the area.

Luckily for us mobile phone coverage is better than the road network. There are mobile phones in many households, everyone from farmers and nomadic pastoralists to urban dwellers in either of the two main population centres of Laikipia County. There are increasing opportunities to use this phones for positive change, but having the tools to address the need and knowing how to effectively use them are two very different things.

In 2010 a perfect opportunity to marry the need and the tools presented itself in the form of the Laikipia Unity Cup, an innovative approach to environmental education using sports as organising and mobilising tools for conservation. The initiative, promoted by the Zeitz Foundation, brought together warring communities, promoted environmental education and tourism, and enhanced social cohesion.

Zeitz Foundation staff member teaches a young fan how to plant a tree. Photo by
Zeitz Foundation staff member teaches a young fan how to plant a tree. (Photo by Joe Mathai)

Around that time there was immense social pressure for young professionals from the area to do something for our people. It was simply not acceptable to sit back and continue to watch people fighting. Our response was to bring together teams from five regions for a competition to create a regional team with which everybody could identify.

The teams competed hard and used their aggression positively, but because this was a league and not a knockout competition there was no winner takes all. A region had to establish a composite team of the best twenty players from all the eight teams, even if they came from warring sides. This brought everyone together and gave them little choice in who to support. The composite team became our team. It was refreshing to see the people who would have previously shot arrows or guns at each other now fighting together for their region to win.

Action during the Laikipia Unity Cup regional tournament. Photo by
Team members wrestle for the ball during the Laikipia Unity Cup regional tournament. (Photo by Joe Mathai)

The goal was to reach as many of the Laikipians as possible – to spread the word, silence the guns and encourage residents to become better stewards of the county’s vast natural heritage. The 2010 edition was a success. Samuel Eto’o, who is the most decorated football player in Africa and a two-time UEFA Champions League winner attended and supported the event. After 2010 the challenge was to maintain the enthusiasm and continue sending out the message that we need to treat our planet better if we are to pass it on to future generations in good shape. To help with this, the Laikipia Unity Programme worked with FrontlineSMS to start communicating in a way that was cheaper, efficient and innovative.

The technology landscape was changing rapidly in 2010. In particular, the uptake of mobile phones and texting was phenomenal. Young people had cell phones, and the Internet was accessible through a USB dongle, a device that connects a computer to wireless broadband.

A screenshot that displays how FrontlineSMS is used to contact team members who are divided into groups that are particular to their regions. (Image courtesy Njenga Kahiro)

A requirement that all teams register their members’ mobile phones meant we could immediately contact them to prepare them for the living conditions in the camps set up with the help of the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK). We used FrontlineSMS to conduct a survey on the environmental challenges from each region and how we could tailor solutions for specific areas within Laikipia. Using the data, we developed participatory theatre pieces that were relevant to the audience complete with real names taken from those who had answered the survey.

There are 2,360 members that make up the teams and thousands of supporters who are in a central database that we use to get feedback. We put each of these members into user groups to help us do a better analysis of group feedback (groups for players, coaches, supporters, regional coordinators, boys’ team or girls’ team, and so on). Crucially, FrontlineSMS enables us to tailor our messages to specific audiences and conduct rapid surveys for the theatre outreach team, and this information is used to create a piece that is relevant to the local realities of the communities we are trying to impact.

Actors use scripts in the participatory theatre performances that are written to reflect the views that are collected from feedback of athletes and supporters via Frontline SMS. Topics range from resource conflicts to anti-poaching messages, and vary depending on the most pressing issue.
Actors in the participatory theatre performances use scripts that are written to reflect the views that are collected from feedback of athletes and supporters via Frontline SMS. Topics range from resource conflicts to anti-poaching. (Photo by Joe Mathai)

The success of our earlier competition efforts created a demand for a year round environmental education program similar to the Laikipia Unity Cup. We improved the second run in 2012, and kicked off what is arguably Kenya’s first conservation football league in 2013.

Our model is such that you cannot win the league by only scoring goals on the field. An equally crucial component is the sustainability challenge, which accounts for 50% of the Championship points. The challenge balances conservation, community, culture and commerce – or the four ‘Cs’ as we call them. This is also where FrontlineSMS comes in handy because of the different teams, regions and personnel involved.

Every week we use the platform to coordinate conservation activities that range from cleaning up a region to gathering materials for the next participatory environmental education theatre. We also receive match reports, send match statistics and receive criticism if the quality of our referees doesn’t measure up to the fans expectations. Thankfully fans can take out their frustration on the anonymous guys behind the virtual window of their mobile phones instead of igniting a conflict in the middle of the playing field.

You may ask why a conservation organisation is involved in sports. Well,  conservation cannot thrive in conflict, which is often a cover for the plundering of natural resources. We believe we will have done our job if we can use the near-universal language of football to bring people together to talk through their issues. It is only if people learn to communicate that we’ll start to face up to, and solve, many of the challenges where we live.

2013_Njenga_KahiroNjenga Kahiro is a Kinship Conservation Fellow and manages the Laikipia Programme of the Zeitz Foundation. He began exploring the use of mobile phone platforms while working for Laikipia Elephant Project where he participated in piloting the use of push to talk technology for reporting human elephant conflict. From this work he co-authored a peer-reviewed article in the 2011 edition of Oryx on the use of cellphone technology in human elephant mitigation. Since 2010, his team have been using FrontlineSMS to run the communication elements of Laikipia Unity Cup, a sports for conservation initiative supported by UNEP, the British Army, Kenya Defence Forces, Laikipia Wildlife Forum and many diplomatic corps based in Nairobi.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja


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Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.