When every drop of rain counts: Managing climate risks in the Greater Horn of Africa

October 19, 2011
Ochieng Ogodo
CCAA human impact stories
In her small vegetable plot in Kenya’s Kitui county, Mary Mueni Samson scrutinizes a rain gauge and carefully notes the results. It is the middle of one of the worst droughts to hit East Africa in recent decades. And though Kitui has been spared the worst of it, Samson's modest harvest of green grams is due in no small measure to her close eye on the weather.

“I read our rain gauge every day and keep records,” she says. “In the past, weather forecasting was a distant drum to many of us, but it now plays a tune we understand well. It helps us know the amount of rains we get in a season and this helps us in planning.”

Samson’s skill and knowledge in using weather data to plan her activities is an important strategy for coping in this already dry region, where rains are less and less dependable. Along with many of her neighbours, she has learned to gather data and apply forecasts to her farming decisions as a member of the Uuniko Farmers Field School.

Erratic weather, little rain

According to Edward Nduli, secretary to the field school, life has been a struggle for decades in this part of Kenya, but things were never as bad as they are today.

“For a region where the majority of us are small-hold farmers who depend on crop production for our livelihoods, the advent of unpredictable seasonal variations visited upon us serious challenges for survival,” he says.

The last good rains he can remember were back in 1997. But thereafter, he says, “We saw the decline of rains with extreme erratic seasons, and this has continued since. (Before,) we knew short rains from October to December, while the long ones came March to May,” says Nduli. “But the years changed and yields came down significantly… we started relying on relief food from local NGOs and international organizations like Red Cross, Panda, and (German aid agency) GTZ.”

Farm-level climate information

Since 2008, a research project led by Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture has been working with Uuniko and other farmers’ groups in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania. The Climate Change Adaptation in Africa research and capacity development program, which was launched in 2006 by IDRC and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, supported researchers and farmers to collaborate in pinpointing the risks faced by smallholders who depend on rainfall. They also tested strategies that may protect food and livelihoods against a changing climate.

Building on knowledge of conservation agriculture learned through the field school program of Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, the project has focused on improving the use of farm-level climate information, and identifying practical measures that nourish crops and livestock in a range of growing conditions, largely by conserving water and improving soil fertility.

Information worth paying for

In Kenya, a partnership with the national meteorological department, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, and the University of Nairobi has made significant inroads in study sites in three Kitui county locations: Kaveta village in Central district, Kyome village in Migwani district, and Kitoo village in Mutomo district.

According to William Githungo of the Kenya Meteorological Department, the project has made an important contribution by integrating climate information with knowledge on dryland agriculture techniques and helping farmers translate this knowledge into their decisions. In surveys conducted in 2010, over 80% of farmers involved in the study rated the improved information so useful that they would be willing to pay for it. “Evaluation,” he says, “has shown that farming decisions based on forecast information may contribute substantially to reduce risk and improve productivity and profitability.”

Adapting farming techniques in Kenya

Initial research stages with the Uuniko Farmers Field School involved consultation between forecasters, researchers, and farmers. The team then focused on testing farming approaches and technologies of greatest interest to local communities. Each season, they set up demonstration plots: one set served as an experimental control, and was cultivated using traditional farming methods; in another, water and soil fertility management techniques such as terracing fields, using fertilizers, and customizing the selection of crop and seed varieties  were chosen in light of seasonal forecasts, and input from farmers. When much better yields resulted from enhanced farming practices tailored to climate data, the school began using these strategies as a group.

Rainwater run-off that once went to waste, for example, is now being diverted to gardens. The community is also constructing ground water tanks as a means to harvest water for dry spells. Households have learned effective ways to use animal manure and crop residues to nourish their soils, saving valuable money on fertilizers.

Farmers have seen a significant increase in harvests, even with little rainfall. With more water available from harvesting techniques, members of the group are practicing agroforestry with fruit trees and eucalyptus. Nutritious grains like sorghum, green gram, lablab beans, and finger millet are moving to the center of farming activities because of their drought tolerance.

As a result of these efforts, says Nduli proudly, “We are no longer major receivers of relief food.”

Enhanced crops in a Tanzanian district

Same district, in northern Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro region, is another semi-arid area at risk from climate change. According to Majid Kabyemela, the District Agricultural and Livestock Development Officer, over 80% of the population are small-hold farmers. With rainfall diminishing and growing erratic, farmers and pastoralists have experienced weak agricultural production in the last two decades.

Involvement in research has changed a lot for local people according to Kabyemela. “The application of modern farming technologies and the use of weather forecasts have given them a new lease of life,” he says. “This project has greatly enhanced crop production here, especially through knowledge gained out of pilot projects established in five wards in the district.”

Traditional forecasters

Among the innovations researchers have championed are closer ties between indigenous weather forecasters who rely on close observation of plants, animals, and other natural indicators and the forecasting experts with the Tanzania Metrological Agency (TMA). To date, the methods of indigenous forecasters have been poorly understood, but locally, they are sought out by many farmers.

Seventy-three year old Wilson Yoeze has been predicting rainfall since 1965, looking to the skies and to local flower and tree species for clues to the weather. “When we started,” he says, “we were depending on observations of certain signs. We looked at stars and clouds…There are clouds that only appear when the season is about to begin.” 

According to Yoeze, if a single thick cloud leads the sky cover as it moves from East to South, a good rainy season is on its way. Another sign of long rains is the appearance of a bright star from the east known as ngate kere. “When none of these appear,” he says, “there will be no rain at all and starvation will be great.”

Consensus forecasts

Traditional forecasters have long guarded their knowledge and shared their predictions only with neighbours. But research has shown that, in spite of their mysterious ways, at the local level, their predictions add a degree of precision that has been missing from the coarse regional outlooks typically provided by meteorological services.

According to research team leader Henry Mahoo of Sokoine University of Agriculture, in Same district, the TMA and indigenous forecasters now work together on a consensus forecast that bridges the two knowledge systems. As a result, he says, “The image of indigenous forecasters is now positive to both farmers and district authorities.” Same District Council has since committed funds to sustain these consensus forecasts.

Tangible results

In all four countries in the project, Mahoo says, “farmers and communities are demanding weather information to help them make farm-level decisions such as when to till the land and what type of crops to plant.” 

Juliana Mbaga, a member of the Bangalala Farmers Field School in Same, has seen the knowledge gained from taking part in research activities result in tangible benefits for her family.

“Because of this project, we get prompt agricultural advisories and use the right planting systems. I use money from lablab to pay school fees for my children. I have also bought a goat for milk production. Proceeds have enabled us to modernize our house.

All photos: IDRC / Thomas Omondi

This article is part of the CCAA human impact stories that highlight research and capacity building to reduce climate change vulnerability in Africa.

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