Access to seasonal weather forecasts is helping small-scale farmers facing threats from extreme weather in Kenya make informed cropping decisions. By choosing the best seeds and planting dates for the likely conditions, farmers have attributed significant increases in their yields to the use of short and medium-term forecasts, securing their livelihoods.
Given that small-scale farmers farm 60 percent of the world's land and produce half the world's food, introducing similar programmes elsewhere could go a long way to preventing hunger and reducing poverty.
After a successful exchange programme bringing humanitarian agency staff together with climate scientists in the UK, the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King's College, London, and Christian Aid wanted to repeat the experience at the sharp end of climate change in Kenya.
HFP used its expertise in creating cross-disciplinary networks to address climate resilience to help bring together a wide range of practitioners under the Sustainable Agricultural Livelihoods Innovations (SALI) project in the semi-arid district of Mbeere in Kenya's Eastern Province.
The collaboration comprised staff from Christian Community Services Mount Kenya East (CCSMKE), local farmer group members, climate scientists from the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD), the UK Met Office and the University of Sussex, plus livelihoods experts from Christian Aid (which co-funds the project with the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, CDKN, and partners with CCSMKE).
For the past two rainy seasons, the specialists worked with local farmers to help them learn how best to make use of seasonal and short-term weather forecasts within their farming methods.
Ahead of each rainy season, the Greater Horn Regional Climate Outlook Forum released a seasonal forecast, while the KMD gave its Kenya-specific forecast and held training workshops at national and local levels.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
After each forecast was released, there was a window of opportunity before the rains arrived to get the forecast to farmers and help increase their understanding of how to apply it to their agricultural practices.
The forecast for the first season (the 2011 short rains from October to December) was favourable, with an 80 percent likelihood of average to above-average rainfall, while that for the subsequent long rains (2012 March to May) was the opposite. This enabled the project to assess performance over a relatively wet and a relatively dry season.
One major contrast between seasons was the differing length of the window between receiving the forecast and the rains arriving. We had about six weeks from forecast to the onset of the short rains in October but only three weeks prior to the start of the long rains in March. The challenge was getting the forecast to farmers and training them in time for them to use their new-found knowledge to make pre-season decisions, such as which seeds to buy.
During the second season, we also supplied seven-day forecasts to farmers. These were designed by KMD for Mbeere District and then sent out using text-messaging software from Frontline SMS, which registered the mobile phone numbers of farmer group members.
The performance of both seasonal forecasts was good; both, according to the farmers using them, were 80 to 90 percent accurate. This made the farmers more confident that using the forecasts would help them make effective decisions. Their options included planting closer to the onset of rains, changing the type of crops and crop varieties and focusing on land-management methods such as the "nine-seed hole", a technique used to conserve soil moisture.
AGRICULTURAL SERVICES KEY
Despite the short length of time available for making decisions before the long rains, about two-thirds of farmers attributed an increase of 15 percent or more in yield to decisions they had made differently as a result of using forecasts.
The farmers considered the seven-day forecast to be especially useful in helping them make decisions related to timing, such as choosing the best planting dates and deciding when to apply fertiliser. They stressed the importance of getting the seasonal forecast at least four weeks in advance to enable them to make good pre-season decisions.
They also noted that, for decisions to be effective, they needed complementary agricultural services, such as a good supply of appropriate seed varieties, soil tests to help in managing soil fertility, plus training on how to collect and use local climate data, for example, by establishing group-managed rain gauges.
Eighty-five percent of the world's farmers are small-scale producers like those involved in the SALI Project in Kenya. They also include 70 percent of the poorest people. The new Global Framework for Climate Services currently being developed aims to "enable better management of the risks of climate variability and change and adaptation to climate change, through the development and incorporation of science-based climate information and prediction into planning, policy and practice on the global, regional and national scale".
Our experiences in Kenya show that providing weather forecasts and training to small-scale farmers is an effective way to help increase the resilience of vulnerable farming communities.
Richard Ewbank is climate advisor to Christian Aid. This blog first appeared on the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) website.