Kenya: Farmers trust tradition over tech to predict the weather (Trust)

April 07, 2019
A translation for this article is available in French

As Mary Mbaka tends to the crops on her farm in central Kenya, she wonders if she can rely on the recent heavy rains to keep them watered, or if she should be preparing for a dry spell.

She says, “The weather is quite unpredictable.”

Like many farmers across the country, Mrs. Mbaka still uses traditional weather forecasting techniques to decide what to plant and when to plant on her land in Kamatungu village, about 200 km northeast of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

For years, the 52-year-old has planned her harvest according to past weather patterns and looked for signs in local wildlife behaviour to tell her when rain is coming, such as a shift in the rhythm of the nightly frog croaking.

But recently, those traditional methods have proved unreliable and Mrs. Mbaka has lost crops to unexpected dry spells and unusually heavy rains.

Scientists expect extreme weather to become more frequent and intense as the planet warms.

Mrs. Mbaka needs accurate weather forecasts and the Kenya Meteorological Department provides the up-to-date weather information that farmers need. But about one-third of the country’s farmers don’t use the national weather service to help them plan their farming activities, according to Danson Kigoro Ireri, the director of meteorological services in Tharaka Nithi County.

Mr. Ireri says, “Most farmers are still not ready to take up the accurate scientific information conveyed by the Met department.”

Some farmers complain that it is too difficult to access this information or too hard to understand the weather forecasts. Others refuse to believe the forecasts are more reliable than the methods they already use.

Mr. Ireri says that farmers leave themselves vulnerable to extreme weather by relying solely on traditional prediction methods.

Weather forecasts can be broadcast over the radio and published in local newspapers. But limited media reach, illiteracy, and language barriers all stand in the way of ensuring that farmers receive this information. There are over 60 languages spoken in Kenya, but weather information is only published in English and Swahili.

The meteorological department is trying to address the language barriers by sending translators into villages each month along with agricultural extension agents. They hold forums where they share weather forecasts and offer tips on how farmers can prepare for coming weather.

If the forecast predicts a coming dry spell, extension agents might suggest that farmers plant drought-tolerant or early-maturing crops such as millet or sorghum.

Farmers also complain that weather information sometimes uses terminology that is too broad or too difficult to understand. For example, forecasts for an entire region are little help to farmers who need to know what is happening locally.

Joyce Kananu is a farmer in Chiakariga County, in Kenya’s Eastern Province. She says, “I am only ever told about a vast region, and I don’t know what to do with that.”

Another challenge for the meteorological department is trust amongst farmers. One inaccurate forecast is often enough to generate distrust. Lawrence Marangu is the local coordinator for the government’s Agricultural Sector Development Support Program. He says, “The information might come too early or the weather might not necessarily be what was predicted.” The result is that farmers rely on their traditional forecasts rather than the technical forecasts.

Age is also a factor. The older generation is often more reluctant to change their methods, while youth may have more faith in modern forecasting techniques.

Martin Njeru is a 65-year-old farmer from Giakuri village in Tharaka Nithi County, Eastern Province. He sends his grandchildren to the monthly weather forums and they return with the forecasts and related crop advice. But Mr. Njeru doesn’t usually listen to the recommendations and prefers to predict the weather the same way he always has.

He says, “I have been farming all my life and I often do not agree with much of what they advocate.… I won’t allow them to dictate to me what to plant and what not to plant.”

This story was adapted from an article titled “Kenyan farmers trust tradition over tech to predict the weather,” written by Caroline Wambui for Thomson Reuters Trust. To read the original article, go to: http://news.trust.org/item/20190211065115-ywdmq/

Photo: Farmer Peter Mutegi in Giakuri, Kenya. Credit: Caroline Wambui / Thomson Reuters Foundation